“A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time” – Homer, the Odyssey
It only seemed appropriate that I should be traveling on foreign soil and wake up under a Mexican sun when I found out Terrence Williams was being invited back into the NBA; this time signing a 10-day contract with the Boston Celtics. This basketball-playing vagabond of sorts with hush hush off-court baggage and the on-court potential of an NBA all-star has been a ship without a port since departing Louisville back in 2009.
A quick review reminds us the Nets grabbed him in the 2009 lottery with the 11th overall pick followed by a demotion to their D-League affiliate where he casually averaged a triple double in three games. The Nets tired of his antics (publicly communicated that he missed practices, but if you’re willing to trade a lottery pick after less than two full seasons, there’s likely more tumult occurring beneath the surface) and shipped him southwest to Houston where he failed to establish himself, so they outright cut the problem child and in the process GM Darryl Morey essentially plagiarized Nets’ GM Billy King’s rationale for dumping the kid:
King in December of 2010: “He’s getting a clean slate in Houston, a new start. He was not going to be a good fit for the future here. The opportunities are better for him in Houston.”
Morey in March of 2012: “We’ve got a very strong wing rotation…and we wanted to give Terrence an opportunity to play somewhere in a contract year.”
Aw, the GMs of this league are a caring bunch, so eager to provide kids with opportunities on the rosters of their opponents. I don’t mind calling bullshit on these quotes and acknowledging that while yes the opportunities are better elsewhere, the real reason is that anything that was going on off the court outweighed the few positives Williams delivered on the court. The coaches and front office in New Jersey were a little more honest in their dealings with the media whereas Houston didn’t even bother.
Like so many Americans before him, it was a westward journey for Williams and he landed in Sacramento last season where he appeared to thrive on the court, but again couldn’t establish himself enough to be offered a contract this past summer. Most official reports out of Sacramento were positive; they appreciated what Williams did in his limited tryout, but when it came time to make a long-term decision on the 6’6”, 220lbs combo guard/forward, they were simply unwilling to commit. Next on the Official Terrence Williams Pro Basketball Tour was an invite to the Pistons training camp. This time around, Williams couldn’t even find a spot on the roster and instead found himself homeless (n the basketball sense) and contract-less to start the season so he did what many before him have done and took his talents to China where he signed on with the Guangdong South Tigers where he played on his first winning team since his Louisville days and helped lead the Tigers to a league-best 27-4 record.
What a long strange trip it’s been
I don’t claim to have the keenest, most well-developed scout’s eye, but I swear talent isn’t the problem with T-Will. And the fact he’s been able to consistently find work despite his miserable shooting and the whispers about his off-court unprofessionalism lead me to believe NBA front offices and scouts see something similar. Fellow Seattleite and Celtic Jason Terry articulates what a lot of fans and scouts see in Williams:
“Playing with him in the summer, playing against him, just seeing him and seeing his work ethic, I know he’s a tremendous talent … A freakish athlete, can handle the ball, and he’s a physical guard. I just can’t wait to see him get an opportunity.”
There it is again; this word “opportunity” follows Williams around like a sad little puppy, or more likely it’s Williams who’s crisscrossing the globe in search of opportunity. His ex-GMs use it as an excuse to dump him (“You’ll be happier without us…”) and his new teammates use it to tout him. Meanwhile, Terrence travels in pursuit of it and along the way encounters unseen sagas and imaginary enemies.
Beyond my wholly fallible eye-assessment, why do I keep getting sucked into this nebulous web of Terrence Williams? I took a look at the scattered sample size that makes up his career and was crestfallen to see how bad things have been. In questing for statistical redemption, I came up mostly (and sadly) empty-handed. I’ve searched the stats of 129 career games that include nothing more than a handful of games where he’s appeared in more than 35 minutes and see he has a total of nine career starts, he’s an above average rebounder for his size and positions, and has a fairly robust usage rate relative to the amount of action he’s seen. His shooting can generously be described as putrid and you can apply that description to nearly any spot on the floor. Unless he’s dunking, he doesn’t have a “sweet spot.” Interestingly enough, a little sliver of light shines through in increased playing time. For Terrence, his efficiency improves as he sees more on-court minutes:
Not only do his ratios improve when he sees more floor time, but his per-36 numbers improve almost across the board with the exception of steals and blocks:
Williams appears to get better as he gets more opportunity and in-game rhythm. I think a lot of us can relate to this in that the more we do something, the better we are at that task which of course doesn’t make it acceptable to shoot 35% from the field, but at least provides some possible color around his deficiencies. If it feels like I’m grasping at straws of efficiency, then maybe it’s because I am. But this is part of what I wanted to discover in this investigation: Why am I fascinated with Terrence Williams? I can tell you the fascination began back at Louisville when I first witnessed his awesome athleticism, his versatility, his above average court vision and who’s not excited about a 6’6” playmaker?
Sadly though, the numbers hardly validate my fascination in the same way occasional on-screen Hollywood plots put countless obstacles in between two characters that are madly in love with each other despite the obvious hurdles and incompatibilities. Sometimes we just can’t let go even when all the evidence suggests, no, demands we should. To follow and support T-Will is to bet your whole hand on a Joker wilder than JaVale McGee. There’s a reason T-Will’s being offered 10-day contracts while Joel Anthony flaunts his championship ring and it has little to do with actual ability—which isn’t a knock on Anthony. To bet on Terrence, to write this story on vacation with skin burning under the high Cabo sun is to invest in the hope that people can change.
The data above tells me there could be a formulaic element to Williams’s success and it includes steady minutes (20-30/night) on a team where his role is clearly defined; a team that takes advantage of his ball handling and playmaking while encouraging him to scale back his three-point attempts. We’ve never seen Williams on a winning team in the NBA so it’s difficult to assume how he’ll perform with a veteran Celtics squad, but if his previous roles in winning situations are an indicator (at Louisville and Guangdong), he’ll hopefully be able to blend his strengths (rebounding, ball handling, defense) into the existing structure in a supporting role. And this would merely cover the on-court piece of the equation and it appears the off-court stuff has often been a challenging aspect for Williams.
Having undergone a series of changes in my own life since crossing the age-30 threshold, I can only hope that young Terrence (he’s still only 25) can discover his own path towards NBA success; which for him should simply be stability. And if not, perhaps he’ll just become the greatest D-League player of all time.
*I wanted to add a note here that I was and still am unable to resolve about Williams. As an outsider, the only off-court transgressions I have access to are those reported by teams to the media. In Williams’s case, that means a couple run-ins with Avery Johnson during his time in New Jersey and public comments by Williams regarding playing time in Houston. There weren’t any notable issues in Houston or Sacramento, but off-court issues in Sacramento have been alluded to and it’s unlikely the Rockets would outright cut the kid just to give him more opportunity to play in a contract year. I acknowledge that I don’t recall how far out last year’s trade deadline was extended, but it seems the Rockets would’ve at least tried to get something for him in a trade. And lastly, yes his stats leave something to be desired, but there’s something odd about a 25-year-old kid with his unique set of skills who is unable to latch on in the league. It’d be a lot more understandable if there were more published instances of him having run-ins with coaches or getting into trouble with the law, but there are just a handful of documented issues so I/we are forced to speculate on how/why this kid has struggled to latch on somewhere. I tend to believe there’s more going on off-the-court as opposed to teams avoiding him due to his poor shooting.