Deron Williams: NBA exodus possible

Updated: July 11, 2011, 2:32 PM ET
By Chris Broussard | ESPN The Magazine

SAN DIEGO -- Though he plans to play in Turkey during the lockout, New Jersey Nets point guard Deron Williams will rejoin the NBA as soon as an agreement on a collective bargaining agreement is reached. But if the owners break the players and get the proposal they're pushing for, Williams believes some stars could opt to play overseas long-term.

"If the proposal (the owners) have, if that's what they're sticking with and that's what they want, then I think it would be hard for a lot of guys to come back to the NBA," Williams said Friday in an interview at a private golf resort in San Diego.

Williams said any collective bargaining agreement that would leave stars such as Kobe Bryant making only $11 million a year -- the owners have proposed cutting players' salaries by roughly a third -- could open the door for an unprecedented exodus to Europe.

"(Kobe) could go make more money overseas, I guarantee you." said Williams, who has a one-year, $5 million deal with Besiktas. "If (European teams) knew he could be there for a full season, or they knew I could be there for a full season, or they knew LeBron James could be there for a full season, they'll pay more money, of course."

If other stars follow Williams to Europe during the lockout, it could be a blow to the league's owners, giving the players' union the leverage it needs to fight off the owners' demands. Williams said he spoke with the union before agreeing to play in Turkey to make sure he wasn't damaging its cause. He said NBPA executive director Billy Hunter was in favor of the move.

"I talked to Mr. Hunter and he said he supported it," Williams said. "He was happy for me. He thought I made a great decision, a business decision. He was behind me."

Williams' new coach, Ergin Ataman of Besiktas, has said he hopes to sign Bryant to play alongside Williams. But Williams can see Bryant signing elsewhere first.

"I see him going to China or somewhere," said Williams, who teamed with Bryant to help the U.S. win the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "He's big in China. I was over there with him in Beijing. He's 'The Man' over there."

Williams said he has not spoken with Bryant, but he estimates he's heard from 10 to 15 other players, some of them superstars, since his decision to play overseas became public. He said many players are willing to follow his lead.

"I've talked to a lot of players, you would be surprised," he said, refusing to name names. "I talked to a few before and I knew some guys were considering it as well. But since it came out, it was just like a snowball of guys calling me (saying) 'What are you doing? When are you leaving?' And guys want to go too. They want to do it."

Williams said he started thinking about playing overseas two years ago, when the union began telling players a lockout was likely. While he has not been allowed to speak with the Nets since the lockout was imposed on July 1, Williams made them aware of his intentions before the work stoppage.

Williams, who has two years and $34 million remaining on his deal, can opt out next summer. If the entire season is lost to the lockout, it could mean he never plays another game for the Nets. With the club scheduled to move to Brooklyn for the 2012-2013 season, that would be a crushing blow to the franchise, which traded Devin Harris, Derrick Favors and two first-round draft picks to Utah for Williams in February.

Williams said he has not yet decided whether he will opt out, but he admitted it would be unfortunate for him and the Nets if the season is canceled.

"I think it will kind of put a damper on things because I want to see where the Nets are going this season," Williams said. "See what kind of additions we can make, because that will definitely help. But I don't know. I still can't really say anything until the new CBA because who knows if I even can opt out? There's no telling."

Williams spoke highly of the Nets' organization, saying he played golf with GM Billy King and coach Avery Johnson before the lockout. The club has pitched Williams on being the face of the new franchise in Brooklyn, and he likes what he's heard so far.

"They have big dreams for Brooklyn and I can kind of picture that," he said. "It kind of excites me. I think it can be big."

If Williams, who had surgery on his right wrist in April, were to get hurt in Turkey, the Nets could void his contract. He said he is in the process of securing personal insurance against injury just in case. But ultimately, he isn't worried about injury.

"People say, 'Oh, you're going to get hurt,'" Williams said. "I can get hurt playing at (the University of San Diego) or wherever I'm at. I can get hurt walking down these steps. Of course, that's a big part of it. But I also did my due diligence, researched insurance. I'll be covered."

Some have speculated that Williams, who has made more than $40 million over his six-year career, is going overseas because he needs the money. He laughed at that notion.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "We've known this lockout's coming. I have plenty of money saved for the lockout purpose. Now, I don't even need to touch that money. I can invest that money. I can go grow that money. It's not something that's money-driven.

"It's more about the experience. Experience and being able to compete and play basketball. I don't want to sit around. That's what the NBA wants us to do right now. They locked us out of our gyms, they locked us out of facilities. We got to go find somewhere on our own to go hoop, to put games together. I don't have to do that. I've got a team. I'm going to go through organized practices. I'm going to be in game situations. So if the lockout is lifted, I'm going to be ready to play."

Williams has not yet signed his contract with Besiktas, but the franchise's management team is planning to come to the United States next week to wrap everything up. While there is a clause in the contract that will allow him to return to the NBA whenever the lockout ends, he doesn't see that happening quickly.

"I don't see a deal getting done anytime soon," he said, "because we're so far apart."

Williams spoke extensively with his former Utah Jazz teammate Mehmet Okur, who is from Turkey, before making his decision. He also spoke with former University of Illinois teammate Dee Brown, who has played professionally in Turkey. He did not get to speak with Allen Iverson, who played briefly for Besiktas last season.

Williams will take his wife and four kids with him to Istanbul, where the team will provide them with an apartment, a car and personal security.

"It's just different," Williams said. "There is no other time in my career that I'll be able to go live and play in another city, experience a different lifestyle, see new things. I'm looking forward to it."

Chris Broussard is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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