Brandon Jennings(notes) skipped college to begin his professional career overseas. Latavious Williams discovered there’s another option available for prep stars who don’t have the inclination – or in his case, the grades – to spend a season on a university campus.
The NBA Development League.
Williams became the first player to be drafted out of high school by the D-League when the Tulsa 66ers made him the final selection of the first round last month. A star forward from the Humble (Texas) Christian Life Center Academy, Williams was rated as the 17th best player in the 2009 recruiting class by Rivals.com. He selected Memphis over Georgetown, Kansas State and Florida International, but had trouble qualifying academically and began to consider his professional options. Like Jennings, Williams wanted to improve his stock for the NBA draft. He chose to stay closer to home to do it.
“There are no regrets at all,” said Williams, who has played sparingly since the 66ers’ season started last week. “…I just came here to get better.”
Orlando Magic forward Brandon Bass(notes) knew Williams from the AAU team Bass sponsored and recommended him to his agent, Tony Dutt, when it became apparent Williams wasn’t going to attend college. Dutt had Bass work out for former Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson before deciding to represent him.
Dutt’s initial plan was to send Williams overseas, where he had already received a guarantee for a $100,000 contract in China. Following Jennings’ blueprint seemed like a good plan. Dutt, however, also looked into the D-League and ultimately recommended it would be better for Williams to stay in the United State where NBA teams could easily monitor him – even though he would be paid only $19,000.
“It would have been hard,” Williams said of playing in China. “I was a little nervous.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder, who own and operate the Tulsa 66ers, did some background work on Williams before assistant general manager Rich Cho recommended they draft him.
Since 2006, the NBA has required U.S.-born players to be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school to be eligible for the league’s draft. During that same time, however, the NBA has also quietly offered another option for players who want or need to turn pro directly after high school: Play in the D-League for a year then enter the NBA draft.
“He’s the first to find the loophole,” Thunder GM Sam Presti said of Williams.
The D-League offers players a chance to play for teams run by NBA franchises. Oftentimes, the teams have a coach who is appointed by their NBA affiliate and who runs a system similar to that of the NBA team. Presti met with Williams at the Thunder practice facility after the D-League draft and attended the 66ers’ first team meeting and practice. The 66ers also will attend several Thunder games in Oklahoma City.
“I will learn more here than [overseas],” Williams said.
Said 66ers coach Nate Tibbetts: “We get a chance to work with ‘Tay’ every day, try to teach him how to be a pro and find out what kind of kid he is.”
Unlike other D-League players, Williams is not eligible to be promoted to the NBA this season. Oklahoma City, however, won’t own Williams’ rights after this season and he will be available to all teams during the 2010 NBA draft.
“There are going to be a lot of learning curves,” Presti said. “We’re excited to have him, but there is a lot of work ahead.”
Williams, 20, is older than most high-school graduates, but still the youngest player on the 66ers. He shares a two-bedroom apartment paid for by the team with teammate Yemi Ogunoye, a 24-year-old former Oral Roberts star. He’s also an eight-hour drive from his hometown of Starkville, Miss., which makes it easy for friends and family to visit.
“I can’t go out with [my teammates],” Williams said. “I just stay at home and watch sports and stuff.”
Said Tibbetts: “We’re going to have to keep an eye on him, not because he is out running around. It’s because he’s 20 years old. This is all new to him.”
There are no guarantees whether Williams will improve enough for NBA teams to seriously consider drafting him – or whether he’ll ever make it to the NBA at all. With just 210 pounds spread over his 6-foot-8 frame, Williams does not have the prototypical NBA body at the power forward position he is playing. A poor season or any off-court problems could keep him from being drafted, and he no longer is eligible to play college ball.
“He’s really gifted athletically,” Tibbetts said. “He does some things you can’t teach. Any of the other stuff, skill stuff and development stuff, we can really, really try to help him with. He has a chance, that’s for sure. And that’s why he’s here. He has the ability to make money in basketball for a while.”
Still, Williams has already learned that, even in the D-League, playing time isn’t easy to come by. He had 17 points and eight rebounds in the 66ers’ preseason game, but has averaged just 11 minutes in three games since. He hasn’t played at all in Tulsa’s past two games.
“He’s certainly gifted as far as tools,” Presti said. “He has a long way to go to understand the game at our level. But he’s shown a willingness to work, listen and figure out a way to apply some of his physical gifts to the positives he has.”
Though Jennings was a much better NBA prospect than Williams, Jennings, too, had trouble getting consistent minutes in Italy. Eighteen-year-old Jeremy Tyler has also struggled after forgoing his senior year in high school to play professionally in Israel.
Williams, at least, has the comfort of playing in his own country, albeit without some of the riches. Judging by the amount of emails he’s received, his transition to the D-League is being watched closely by other prospects weighing their options.
“Most kids go to college,” Tibbetts said. “But he’s here and he’s playing against older guys. …He’s going to have to come in and learn how to fight and battle just like he would at a college level. But now he’s doing it against grown men.”