March 23, 2011
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Encircled by about a dozen reporters Wednesday afternoon on the eve of Arizona's Sweet 16 matchup with Duke, Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams described what it was like when he wasn't the center of attention.
Williams recalled sitting by himself as reporters flocked to his teammates the first time Arizona players met with the media prior to his freshman season.
"Not many people knew who I was back then," Williams said. "They were excited about our whole class, but I wasn't the main one they were focused on. There were not many people around me at all."
That it was less than two years ago that Williams was still an unheralded recruit many thought would redshirt is hard to believe considering how quickly he's developed since then.
Williams has gone from sixth man for an undistinguished Los Angeles-area high school program as a sophomore, to under-the-radar Division I prospect as a senior, to a potential No. 1 NBA draft pick two years later. He had a game-saving block in the round of 64 against Memphis and the game-winning 3-point play in the round of 32 against Texas, enabling the Wildcats to return to his native Southern California for the Anaheim regional.
Even Arizona coach Sean Miller admits he didn't realize the caliber of player he was getting when Williams committed to the Wildcats in June of his senior year of high school after backing out of his letter of intent to USC as a result of Tim Floyd's resignation. Not only was Williams not among Rivals.com's top 150 recruits in the class of 2009, Miller and his staff had seen him play only on film.
"Out of our five incoming freshman, he was probably the least heralded," Miller said. "You knew you had a player that had great ability and one day could be terrific, but it's happened in far more quick fashion than we expected."
Little-known La Mirada High hadn't won a league title since 1982 and hadn't produced a Division I player in more than a decade, so it didn't receive much attention from Southern California media or college coaches. Furthermore, Williams' AAU team featured higher-ranked prospects such as shot-happy Jordan Hamilton and Georgetown-bound Hollis Thompson, relegating the lesser-known forward to a role coming off the bench. And finally, a strong 2009 class in California featuring 15 players ranked in Rivals.com's top 100 made it easier for Williams to slip through the cracks.
"He was just one of those kids that flew under the radar," La Mirada coach Steve Schuster said. "He's not a loud, flashy player, he played for a smaller high school program and then he played on Jordan Hamilton's AAU team. Everyone knows Jordan's a volume shooter, so Derrick would have to clean up missed shots if he wanted the ball."
It's a tribute to the values Williams' mother instilled in him that he neither transferred to a more tradition-rich high school nor sought out an AAU team that would provide him more opportunity to showcase his abilities.
Rhoma Moore kept Williams grounded and humble, insisting that the limelight he sought would eventually come if he earned it through hard work. This was a woman who turned away coaches from high-profile private schools who claimed they could get Williams a scholarship offer from Duke if he transferred; who taught Williams to be patient when lesser players received higher rankings than he did; and who still makes a potential NBA lottery pick take out the trash when he comes home for a few days during the summer or over Christmas break.
"Derrick was taught to be loyal and not to run from things," said Lionel Benjamin, Williams' AAU coach with Team Odom. "He never let going under the radar bother him. He knew that in due time, he was going to get the notoriety he was supposed to get. His mom's always taught him not to chase things like that but to let them chase you."
If the spotlight was slow to find Williams in high school, it wasn't because of a lack of effort on his part.
He'd wedge a bottle cap in the door to La Mirada's gym or text Schuster to open it up for him so he could do extra shooting after dinner during the season. He'd play pickup games at nearby parks or drive 30 miles west to USC or Compton College when he sought better competition. And he'd do all sorts of drills during the offseason with friend Charlie Torres, from resistance training with a bungee cord to catching tennis balls while he dribbled down court to practice keeping his head up.
"He'd always call me at 11 p.m. and be like, 'Coach, sorry I missed your call, but I was getting some shots up,'" USC associate head coach Bob Cantu recalled. "He lived in the gym. He was a kid that loved basketball and was always working on his skills. That's why it's not surprising he made such a big jump every year."
The hard work eventually resulted in a flurry of eye-catching performances against some of the Los Angeles area's top prospects. There were 20- and 30-plus-point nights against the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Renardo Sidney and Jordan Hamilton, several of which finally caught the attention of USC, Nevada, San Diego and a handful of other programs.
Cantu and Floyd had monitored Williams throughout his sophomore season, but it wasn't until late in his junior season that the courtship became serious. Williams lit up Jordan Hamilton's Compton Dominguez team for 28 first-half points, prompting Cantu to call Floyd and say, "We have to get this kid. We have to offer him and get him."
"We really felt when we were signing that we were getting a hidden gem, so it doesn't surprise me that he's this good," Cantu said. "It's frustrating because he could have helped us so much, but I'm happy for him he's had those opportunities because he's a good kid."
Williams was the last of USC's three signees to seek a release from his letter of intent in June 2009, a difficult decision for him because of his loyalty to Cantu and his desire to play for the local program he grew up supporting.
The second that Williams revealed he was back on the market, coaches who showed no interest in him the previous year suddenly were clamoring to get his services. They were drawn to Williams because of a senior season in which he averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds, and because there were few players of his ability still available.
After choosing Arizona over Memphis, Marquette and Connecticut, among others, Williams played his way into the starting lineup by his third game and earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors. He split his summer between Tucson and Southern California, training with his teammates at Arizona and then against college and pro players at the Hangar Athletic Xchange in Hawthorne.
The payoff from that hard work has been a spectacular sophomore season that has exceeded even his expectations. Williams averaged 19.1 points and 8.2 boards and showcased the ability to score from the perimeter or with his back to the basket, leading Arizona to an unexpected Pac-10 title and emerging as a potential top-five pick in next June's NBA draft.
"Some of the things he's doing, he's probably shocked himself to be honest with you," Benjamin said. "He was always going to work hard to be the best player he can be and this whole being a pro thing was going to come, but it's a shock to be honest that it's come this early. Me personally, I thought it would be a three- or four-year plan before he was looking at situations like this, but it's here now."
Before Williams can worry about his draft stock, he has a Sweet 16 game against Duke in Anaheim a mere 15 minutes from where he grew up. And as a show of gratitude for how much Williams has helped the program, Miller surprised his star forward by having the Wildcats practice at La Mirada High School on Wednesday morning.
When Williams walked into his old high school gym, he saw a signed Arizona poster in the La Mirada display case, he saw the league title banner he helped earn in 2009 and he saw a homemade poster on the wall congratulating him on his Pac-10 Player of the Year award. It was a nostalgic moment for a guy who has come a long way since he last wore a No. 23 jersey at La Mirada.
"Coming from a small school and being underrated forced me to work that much harder," Williams said. "But it's paid off."