At one point he was the most athletic player in college basketball. A man among boys, able to dip his toe in whatever waters his team found to be most shallow, and single-handedly fill them up. This was his physical reach; this was his gift. When Terrence Williams was at Louisville, nobody could guard him, and he could guard everyone—his athleticism, more so than his mindset, made him the nation’s most versatile player. Not the most talented (although he was close), but the most well rounded.
He never excelled in any one area because he didn’t have to. He wasn’t the best rebounder with the nicest box out technique, nor could he fill it up in a variety of ways with the game’s smoothest jump shot. He never played the game like he had eyes in the back of his head or was seen as the most technically sound perimeter defender (although Jonny Flynn once said playing Williams defensive led Cardinals in college was like “being chased by eight pit bulls, and you just got to keep running for your life.”
In college Williams flourished playing a position Lenny Wilkins created, Scottie Pippen revolutionized, and LeBron James elevated: point forward. He was the best player on his team yet his role was anything but the typecast leading scorer. He spent his senior year setting up everyone else, a single star smothered on a cloudy night. His coach, Rick Pitino, gave Williams an unusual amount of responsibility; plays began with him holding the ball instead of the more typical circumstance that would see him directly participating in its conclusion.
So what happens when effortless success—experienced just three years ago—meets terrible disappointment? What happens when a familiar, comfortable role deforms into something drastically different; when a player is told what he’s done so well isn’t going to cut it, and his only options are adapt or die? Well, it’s too soon to say. The optimist looking at Terrence Williams’ career might say he hasn’t been granted an opportunity to show what he’s capable of, while the pessimist would retort he doesn’t deserve one.
Terrence Williams played 84 minutes for the Houston Rockets last season. His “best” game came on January 7th against the Orlando Magic. Williams scored 11 points on 11 shots, in 21 minutes of action. That’s one shot every 1.9 minutes. That’s not Terrence Williams. Terrence Williams enjoys making others better. Take a November 7th battle while he was with the Nets, in Miami. In 26 minutes, Williams scored seven points (on seven shots), grabbed seven rebounds, and dished nine (!) assists. That’s Terrence Williams, and that’s what the Rockets can only hope they’re able to tap into.
Imagine paying hard earned money to see Kanye West in concert, driving to the stadium, getting comfy in your seat, and watching him play the piano for three hours. Sure he’s probably able to play a few songs reasonably well, but that’s not what you came to see. He’s there to flip out on stage with a microphone, perform all the great songs that made him a significant presence in American popular culture. That’s his role as a concert performer, that’s what he’s good at and what his fans like to see. Terrence Williams can slash to the hoop, shoot a bunch of threes and do his best to hawk guys on the perimeter, but is that really what he should be doing?
(Yes it’s the D-League, but after being demoted for three games while in New Jersey, he averaged 28 points,11.3 rebounds, and 10.7 assists per game. He can ball. He’s still 24 and still a supremely athletic basketball player.)
I don’t mean to lionize him, and if it sounds that way please accept my apologies—I have a soft spot for basketball players who’re filled with promise yet never reach their absolute limit. Terrence Williams has the ability to legitimize himself at the NBA level, but for whatever reason he hasn’t nestled into the same position that made him a lottery pick in the first place. It’s like he won the lottery but wasn’t allowed to cash the check because his first name was printed with an extra “r”. That’s the hell Williams must feel he’s in on his darkest days. He’s trapped.
Basically the fundamental question that will ultimately decide how Terrence Williams’ career shakes out is this: Is he skilled enough to do what he did in college for an NBA team. And, equally important, will someone—a coach, a GM, an owner—give him the chance to try?