Day 4: Illinois | Traveling Violations
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The kids were shouting for autographs, there was this interview to do and an assistant coach was on the cell phone trying to make sure Deron Williams made it to dinner with a recruit and his family. Illinois' junior guard is, after all, the kind of poster boy with which to sell a program.
If Deron (pronounced DARE-on) could stop to listen, he may have overheard the impressed talk among NBA scouts who flocked to Illinois' preseason game with SIU-Edwardsville on Friday to assess the junior guard's burgeoning game.
It is all getting pretty big for Williams, once a second-thought, second-option off guard and now one of college basketball's brightest stars.
"He was in the shadow of [high school teammate] Bracey [Wright]," Illinois coach Bruce Weber says. "He has been in the shadow of [college teammate] Dee [Brown]. He was recruited, but not in a top-20, going-to-the-lottery kind of way."
And now he is stepping out of the shadow.
Whether Williams, a 6-foot-3 native of The Colony, Texas, relishes the attention is difficult to tell.
Williams still is an extremely grounded player. He isn't concerned with fans or scouts. He just wants the Illini to win.
"I'm a team guy," he said Friday after Illinois beat SIU-Edwardsville 78-58 in an exhibition game. "I worry about my team and what we need to do to win, and all of that will work out."
Illinois may have the best backcourt in the country. There is Brown, the ridiculously quick point guard. There is Luther Head, the vastly underrated senior off guard.
But Williams, who averaged 14 points a game a year ago and seems to make progress by the day, has developed into the best of them all. His jump shot, ball handling and defense all are improved.
"He just keeps advancing his game," Weber says. "People say, 'Oh God, he was good last year' and I keep telling people 'He's raised it to another level.'"
The way he has developed is what makes Weber so happy. There is no question Williams has God-given talent. But he isn't some freak athlete or prodigy. Williams has taken good and turned it into great through relentless work combined with a willingness to listen.
"He is a very, very smart basketball player, about as smart as they come," Illini assistant coach Jay Price says. "You don't think he is paying attention and he hears everything … what makes him so good, besides his talent, is his understanding of the game and smarts.
Williams got in foul trouble against SIU-Edwardsvile, played just 15 minutes and took just six shots (he made three of them).
Considering this was an exhibition game and victory was never in doubt, Williams would have been forgiven for just kicking back on the bench and checking out the cheerleaders.
Instead he spent the game glued to what was happening on the court. During time outs he pointed out mistakes to younger players who were getting some rare playing experience.
"I got a big chance to watch tonight," Williams laughed.
"That's something I do. I correct guys when they do something wrong. I study players' defensive stances. I think I have good knowledge of the game."
Some preseason polls have Illinois No. 1, and all of them have the Illini in the top 10. Williams thinks that is about right, considering this team returns its top 10 scorers from last season's Sweet Sixteen squad.
"Ever since we lost to Duke last year our goal has been to get to St. Louis [site of this year's Final Four]," he says. "We have a poster up in our locker room with the St. Louis Final Four logo on it."
Williams' leadership in the waning minutes of an exhibition game is a small step in down that road.
"He's a complete player," Weber says. "He's a great leader."
And he has developed out of the shadows into one of the brightest stars for one of the brightest teams.