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The new J-Will
by Jason McIntyre / December 5, 2003

You think Memphis and its coach, Hubie Brown, miss Jason Williams right now?

Consider this: The Grizzlies are two years removed from being one of the worst road teams in the league. They showed up in your gym, and you had an automatic W. Wednesday, Memphis surged to a 13-point fourth quarter lead, but with Williams on the bench in street clothes with back spasms, the Grizzlies had no leadership down the stretch, turning the ball over at an alarming rate and letting the Nets crawl back into the game. But floundering New Jersey collapsed in the final 90 seconds, and Memphis escaped from the Meadowlands with a victory.

Brown, at 69 an artifact of NBA days harking back to high socks, precise shooting, and no teenagers, gushed afterward about how much he misses his new buddy, Williams, who epitomizes the new generation of ballers with the diamond in his ear and a plethora of tattoos.

"We really miss Jason, he's so difficult to defend down the stretch," Brown said, wiping his receding hairline. "He's so quick. There are very few guys in this league as quick as Jason from circle to circle. Not only his quickness, but in the final three minutes of games, he's one of the best shooters in this league."

Surprised?

Don't be.

Williams, 28, was once regarded as an out-of-control hotdog with a penchant for bad shots and poor decisions in the clutch. Those are the primary reasons he was traded from a contender (Sacramento) to a pretender (Memphis) in 2001.

In his three years in Graceland, however, Williams' turnovers are down, and his assists and shooting have skyrocketed. Williams is sixth in the NBA in assists (7.1 apg), and third in assist to turnover ratio (4.42), but more importantly, tops among starting NBA point guards. Assist to turnover ratio is perhaps the most significant statistic for point guards.

How has he pulled of the sudden turnaround?

Lorenzen Wright, who has seen Williams' ups and downs, credits Brown.

"Jason's settled down a little bit at the offense end," Wright said. "He's not as big a chance-taker. Hubie has turned everything around for us, and for Jason. We're playing defense better, and it starts with the coach. We can't wait to get Jason back."

Brown is the one most frequently sighted for the change. But Williams cites his young son, Jaxon, as a major reason for maturity.

"He's got something to do with it," Williams said between bites of pizza in the locker room - courtesy of Wright - after the win over the Nets. "I guess I may have calmed down a little. Like after games, instead of hanging around, bullshitting with the guys, I'm just real anxious to get home and see him and my family."

Williams, who favors the short spikey hair and has the looks of a boy band member, said he's definitely not a party animal, and he never was.

"I've never had a sip of beer, you can put that down," he said. "I just don't like the taste."

No alcohol at all?

"Well, I had liquor before, but you know, only at special occasions and stuff," he said in his West Virginia twang.

Williams said there "wasn't any competition" in West Virginia, but that's probably because he was part of one of the most storied and stacked teams in State history, pairing with Randy Moss (Minnesota Vikings) and Bobbie Howard (Chicago Bears in 2002). The trio helped DuPont High School reach the Class AAA State final in 1994, Williams' senior year.

Before finding success on the hardwood, Williams was a standout football and baseball player, but eventually gave up both after his freshman year to concentrate on hoops.

"I was scared of the baseball," Williams admitted in a rare moment of candor. "Basketball had the least amount of contact. If you get hit by a baseball, that hurts. Football, that was rough, too."

As a senior at DuPont, Williams posted 17.9 points per game and had a state tournament record 13 assists in the championship game loss to Martinsburg (he finished with 26 points, and Moss matched him with 26 and five steals). DuPont finished 24-3, the best record in school history, and colleges fawned over the wizardry passing of the phenom, who was tabbed the Gatorade State Player of the Year.

Williams eventually settled on Providence, signing a letter-of-intent to play for Rick Barnes. But that summer, Barnes bolted for Clemson, and was replaced by Pete Guillen. The move prompted Williams to renege on his pledge, and he elected to attend Fork Union Military Academy.

That lasted all of two weeks, essentially losing an entire year. In 1995, he transferred to Marshall to play for up-and-coming coach Billy Donovan. The two meshed quickly, and Williams instantly took over the high-octane Thundering Herd offense. Williams averaged 13.4 points and a Southern Conference-best 6.4 assists per game as a freshman, but once again his career was put on hold by a coaching move. Donovan did wonders at Marshall, and was offered the coaching job at the University of Florida.

Naturally, Williams wanted to join him, but Marshall, in a surprising move, blocked the transfer. It took a few weeks of negotiation between the Williams' and the school, but in July of 1997, Williams was granted his release and left for Florida.

His national profile growing because of a quick-trigger from deep and excellent passing, Williams took the reigns at Florida and was an instant hit, engineering a nationally-televised upset of storied Kentucky and engineering himself into NBA lottery pick status.

Williams left Florida after one year for the NBA, and was the seventh pick of the Sacramento Kings.

"I never really got comfortable at Florida," he said. "I wasn't there long enough."

Now that he's sticking around somewhere, enjoying this third season in Memphis, Williams is getting in a grove. At 9-8, this is the latest in a season the franchise has been over .500.

"We're just trying to get to the playoffs," Williams said. "Once we get there, we'll set new goals."

It's still early, and the West is loaded, but with the acquisition of Bonzi Wells and with Williams in control of a suddenly potent offense, Memphis could be angling for a postseason berth.

Jason McIntyre is a a freelance journalist in New York City and a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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