Deron Williams: Best Illini Pro ever
By Paul M. Banks is Founder/President of The Sports Bank.net
Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams, the highest NBA draft pick in Illini history, is currently the best player running the point in the NBA. He’s also now the best pro player by far in recent Illini history. And Williams seems to be getting better every time spotlight grows brighter. He’s improved his game every year he’s been in the league and raises it another even level in the postseason.
In the first round of the 2007 playoffs, all three members of the legendary 2005 Illini backcourt re-united. The Houston Rockets’ main perimeter weapon in 2007 was former Illini Luther Head, who finished fourth in the NBA in 3 pt shooting that year. Since then his career has taken a huge step backward and today he finds himself buried on the bench of the lowly Indiana Pacers. He started ten games this past season, but shot just 35% from distance for the season.
-Dee Brown’s huge in Tel Aviv
Dee Brown’s NBA career makes him kind of like another Mateen Cleaves. Both were photogenic, charismatic players who eventually became poster children for a magnificent March Madness run. In the league, Brown is undersized, not a true point guard and way too streaky a shooter to hold down a job. The Brown/Williams situation (Brown was the third string pt. guard, Deron the starter on the 07 Conference finalist team) evokes my infamous “Brad Johnson/Casey Weldon rule.”
A situation where two college teammates find their roles in the professional ranks reversed from what they were in college. Johnson threw less than 30 passes during his entire Florida St. career. The starter was Weldon, a nationally acclaimed and media hyped QB who was relegated to literally playing flag football just a few years later.
In 1999, coincidentally the same year that the Washington Redskins adopted a rip off of the Seminoles logo for their helmet, Weldon was 3rd string and Johnson the starter. Remember it was Brown, not Williams, who got most of the publicity and hype at Illinois. Today, Brown is a star in Tel Aviv after having a cup of coffee with the Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns following his stint as Deron’s teammate.
Other Illini with notable Pro Careers
-Eddie Johnson’s 19,202 points was the 22nd highest total in NBA history when he retired, but Johnson was never invited to the All-Star game nor a member of any All-NBA team. He did win the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award as a member of the Suns in 1989. This award typifies his career: not a star, but a good role player. Brian Cook and Kenny Norman, who once averaged about 19 points a game for the L.A. Clippers, are two more Illini who qualify for this category. With Cookie actually that might be a stretch. His skills never really translated to the pro game, and he accomplished little in the league.
-Kendall Gill was the fifth overall pick in the 1990 draft.
Gill averaged over 20 points per game twice in his career. First as a second-year player for the Hornets (joining Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson as part of a great young nucleus) in 1991-92. (20.5 ppg) and again for the Nets in 1996-97 (21.8 ppg). In the 1997-98 NBA season, Gill led the league in steals. On April 3, 1999, he recorded 11 steals in a game against Miami, tying Larry Kenon’s single-game record. Unfortunately, his skills were just ordinary and never caught up to his extraordinary athleticism. It’s not likely that an NBA team will sign him away from his cruiserweight boxing career nor his Chicago Bulls pre-game broadcasting gig. His NBA career is in the books.
-Nick Anderson was picked 11th in the 1989 NBA draft. The first pick in Orlando Magic history went on to become arguably the franchise’s greatest three-point shooter. He was the main outside scorer on the Eastern Conference finalist team of 1994-95. Unfortunately, he missed four crucial free throws in game one of the 1995 NBA Finals, and the Magic lost both the game and the series. Shortly thereafter, he developed both performance anxiety and a phobia of shooting free throws. With his head out of the game, his career was never the same. Many feel the Magic have not recognized the contributions Anderson made to the franchise, and hopefully one day that will be rectified. As for fellow 1989 “Flyin Illini” teammates Kenny Battle, Marcus Liberty and Stephen Bardo, their NBA careers can be encapsulated in mere footnotes.
-Derek Harper was the greatest of the bunch before Williams. He teamed with Rolando Blackman to give the Dallas Mavericks a dominating backcourt in the 1980s, and was an integral part of a conference champion New York Knicks team. According to his Wikipedia entry, “Harper played in 1,199 regular season games in his career, ranking him twenty-first in NBA history (as of the 2004-5 NBA season). He retired having the eleventh most steals and the seventeenth most assists in NBA history, and is widely regarded with the dubious distinction as being one of the best players to never make it to the All-Star game.”
Fitting that the two best players in recent Illini history are point guards.
A good point guard is like a socialist: they prioritize an effective distribution of resources, share the wealth and get everyone involved. The best NBA point guards of the future will accentuate the drive-and-kick game. Deron’s game is often compared to the legendary former California Golden Bear Jason Kidd. If we examine both players’ first two years in the league, we see that Kidd made similar statistical jumps from his first to second season. Williams compares favorably in every stat except rebounding. Williams is more powerful than Kidd with or without the ball, but Kidd is quicker. Without question, Williams’ scoring and shooting ability have now surpassed that of Kidd.
Kidd’s versatility has earned him the nickname “Mr. Triple-Double,” and he is third all-time in career triple-doubles with 87. Deron’s NBA career seems to become more impressive each season. But he still has plenty to do when it comes to matching Kidd’s impressive professional resume:
1995 NBA co-Rookie of the Year
6-time All-NBA Selection
9-time All-Defensive Selection
5-time NBA regular-season leader, assists per game: 1999 (10.8), 2000 (10.1), 2001 (9.8), 2003 (8.9), 2004 (9.2)
Member of the 2000 U.S.A. Dream Team which won gold at the Sydney Olympics.
However, I think we all know that D. Will can easily get there.
Paul M. Banks is Founder/President of The Sports Bank.net, an Upper Midwest sports webzine. He’s also a member of the Football Writers Association of America, the United States Basketball Writers Association and a sports writer for the Washington Times.com Communities and Walter Football.com