Williams under the radar no more

As a youngster growing up with aspirations of playing professional basketball, Derrick Williams said his mother always cautioned him not to “chase the NBA.”

“Instead,” she told him, “let the NBA chase you.”

Years later that’s exactly what’s happening with Williams. After leading Arizona in scoring as a freshman, the once-obscure high school recruit has transformed into one of the top NBA prospects in the country.

Derrick Williams grew into one of the Pac-10's top players as a freshman last season.
Jason O. Watson / US Presswire

Some websites predict the 6-foot-9 forward will be among the top 10 players selected in next summer’s draft. Last week, after watching Williams work out at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio, a scout said Williams has all the tools to shine at the next level.

“He’s just so well-rounded,” the scout said. “There’s really not much he can’t do – and he’s only going to get better because he works so hard.”

That explains how Williams reached this point in the first place.

Heeding the advice from Mom, Williams said he never looked too far ahead during his days of competing in youth and high school basketball. Sure, he was confident in his abilities. But he knew that earning a college scholarship and putting himself in a position to turn pro would never happen if he thought about the future instead of focusing on the present.

“I knew what I could do,” Williams said, “but a lot of other people didn’t. It was my job to show them.”

Not that it was easy.

Williams averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds as a senior at La Mirada High School in California. But because La Mirada was a smaller school known more for football than hoops, Williams never received the same spotlight as players from tradition-rich programs such as Fairfax, Mater Dei and Westchester.

Entering his senior season, Williams wasn’t even ranked among the top 150 players in his class by Rivals.com. After entertaining offers from schools such as Nevada and San Diego State, Williams caught the attention of former USC coach Tim Floyd and signed with the Trojans.

“I still felt like an underdog,” Williams said. “When you’re ranked in the Top 50 or the Top 20 on the Internet, people are always watching you. But no one really thought much about me because they didn’t know what I could do.”

Luckily Sean Miller took it upon himself to find out.

Shortly after Miller left Xavier to take the Arizona job, Floyd resigned at USC amid allegations that he committed NCAA violations. USC released Williams from his national letter of intent. After taking visits to Memphis and Arizona, he opted to sign with the Wildcats.

Williams was actually a huge Arizona fan growing up – but the school never showed interest in him during his days at La Mirada. The first game he saw at the McKale Center was the first one he played in last fall.

“He’s still very new to the game,” Miller said. “A couple of years ago he wasn’t on any recruiting website. Last summer a lot of people thought we should redshirt Derrick as a freshman, but he improved by leaps and bounds [during the season].

“His goal is to improve even more as a sophomore and be one of the best players in the Pac-10.”

That hardly seems out of the question.

Along with winning conference Freshman of the Year honors, Williams earned first-team all-league honors after averaging team-highs in points (15.7) and rebounds (7.1).

Sean Miller decided to let Derrick Williams play last season instead of taking a redshirt.
Chris Morrison / US Presswire

Other than John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins of Kentucky, no other college freshman at a high-level school impacted their team as much as Williams, who came up huge for an Arizona squad that was playing with its fourth coach in four seasons.

Even though the Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years, the fact that they went 16-15 was remarkable considering the roster featured just one senior in Nic Wise.

“We were the third-youngest team in Division I,” Williams said. “We had some ups and downs. We had some games we lost that we should’ve won. But we also won some games we could’ve lost.”

Williams said ending the season on a high note – the Wildcats won three of their final four games – should pay huge dividends entering the 2010-11 campaign. After three years of inconsistency, the program finally appears to be back on solid footing.

“The program … I can feel it coming back,” he said. “I can [sense] it when I walk around school and hear people talking. [The buzz] is starting to pick back up again. Everybody around campus is getting hyped up about the season because we’re going to be a lot older instead of younger. We’ve got a lot to look forward to.”

Especially if Williams continues to perform at a high level.

Williams’ low profile allowed him to sneak up on opponents during the first half of last season. But teams will be more prepared for him this year, meaning he’ll likely face a lot of double-teams.

Williams said he’s prepared to handle it. Along with becoming a better passer and defender, Williams said he’d like to score more from the perimeter. He said he connected on 40 percent of his 3-point attempts as a high school senior. Last year Williams attempted just 16 shots from beyond the arc. He made four of them.

“More people are going to start doubling me,” Williams said, “so I’m working on some pick-and-pop-type-stuff. I’m just trying to prove I can shoot. As soon as I get my shooting game into it …”

Indeed, that could mean trouble for opponents, who along with Williams will have to prepare for an Arizona team that returns four of five starters.

“Derrick wants to be a part of a team that wins more than 16 games,” Miller said. “It’s important to him. That’s why he came to Arizona.”

The question now is how long will Williams stay. If he shows even the slightest bit of improvement this season he’ll be all but a lock to be a first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft.

Williams said he doesn’t pay attention to mock drafts.

“If I’m one of the top picks, then I’ll go,” Williams said. “It really hasn’t hit me yet. I’m not thinking about it.”

Although he refuses to look ahead, Williams said his newfound celebrity is causing him to choose his friends more wisely.

“People at home are starting to talk to me now that never talked to me before,” Williams said. “My mom always told me, ‘Stick with the friends you had before, because the new ones are going to try to get you for money and stuff.’”

Williams knows to listen to Mom’s advice.

After all, it’s already taken him this far.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jul 13, 2010