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The Risks and Rewards of Sean Williams

He has that easy athleticism that causes involuntary muscle reactions in fans. Eyes pop, jaws drop, lungs suck in huge volumes of air then exhale it all in a scream.

But Sean Williams has also caused heads to shake and fists to clench.

The Nets' first round draft choice has looked sensational in the early going. After his first two weeks of NBA action, topped off by 22 points and 8 rebounds Saturday, Williams is the league's top shooter, hitting on 65.7% of his shots. He also ranks first in blocks per 48 minutes and seventh best in blocked shots. Among rookies, he is fourth in scoring and rebounding and first in blocks. David Thorpe of ESPN calls him the fifth best rookie in the league. And he only turned 21 in September.

Just as in summer league and training camp, each session on the court has proven to be better than the one previous. Vince Carter, Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins, Boki Nachbar, Darrell Armstrong and Malik Allen all raved about his potential in training camp. There was always the caveat about how "raw" he is and how good he can be, but there has also been the occasional "game changer" or "really good" or "can really help this team" or the impromptu "oh my God" to go along with it.

Lawrence Frank, never one to wax poetic about a rookie, gave the 6'10" (okay, maybe 6'8 1/2" with a 7'5" wingspan) power forward as good a compliment as he hands out to any young player during camp: he's surprised the coach.

"In practice he has shown more than what I thought he'd be able to do at this point," Frank said. "He has surprised me. He's shown a much better feel now than he did in Orlando. He's been fairly consistent, practice after practice, in terms of giving good performances. How it transfers into games we'll find out. But he's definitely impressed."

Now, those reviews have been forgotten, replaced by new ones, all raves. Frank, criticized for not giving him enough time in the first week of the season--particularly at the end of the Hornets' game, finally started him against the Heat, meaning against Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning.

"Look, Sean's earned the right to continue to play," said the coach, "and he gives us a dimension we don't have. The challenge is the consistency of it. You don't know it until you throw him out there. . . .And look, also, you can't get crazy about it. You can be excited about it because of what you see, but you can't overblow it, because this is a brand new experience for the guy. Who knows what to expect? Only time will show. But he definitely has athletic gifts that can definitely help us."

He has a big fan in Kidd, who compared his style to Dennis Rodman and has reportedly lobbied for him to get more minutes. "He brings a lot to the table defensively," said Kidd in Boston. "He can change shots. He can block shots. And he rebounds. He can also play above the rim, so he can be an (offensive) presence. The big thing is, he's learning. He's learning on the go and he's picking things up pretty fast."

He's only had one off-court hiccup. Williams didn't play his first preseason game because he showed up late for morning shootaround...about 15 minutes late. Apparently, he was stuck in traffic, not uncommon in North Jersey, but everyone else made it on time.

"Don't overblow it," Frank suggested to the beat reporters at the time. "He's late. There's a penalty. Move on." Since then, there's been no indication Williams has been anything other than a hard worker and quick learner. "Sean, in all due respect, has been no problem whatsoever," said his coach.

Of course, there's always going to be some concern. Williams fell into the Nets' hands at #17 for one reason: this lottery-level talent hadn't played since January when former Net and Boston College coach, Al Skinner, threw him off the team reportedly because he failed a drug test for marijuana use. It wasn't the first time. The year before, he was suspended after being arrested by campus police for possession or marijuana, and initally trying to evade arrest. And as a freshman, Williams had been suspended twice by Skinner. Asked at the time of the arrest if those suspensions were related to drugs, Skinner responded, ''It had to do with other things." The "other things" were rumored to be academic, which must have been particularly ennervating for school officials. Williams had scored 1280 on his SAT's, close to the mean for BC freshmen in 2004.

And even after BC, there have been signs of immaturity. RealGM reported Williams was sluggish in a predraft workout "after being up until 2:00 AM the night before playing video games". Those who have met him say while a nice kid, he can be a little weird.

There was little doubt of his potential on Draft Night, but there was a lot of doubt about his readiness. Everyone used the "raw" to describe his talents. Few college players arrive in the NBA with as little game experience as Williams. Not only was his suspended three times and dismissed from his college team, he played only one season of high school basketball. He told an NBA interviewer during the rookie photo shoot that he had only started playing basketball when he was "15, 16". Instead, he spent his time on the football field, at linebacker, defensive end and safety! He played mostly AAU basketball in his native Dallas, then played one year for Mansfield High School. He went from being a "major sleeper" to the area's "newcomer of the year" in a matter of months. Boston College smartly had him on an official visit in May of junior year before he had ever played a high school varsity game. By the time he had finished high school, the Eagles had the inside track and a letter of intent.

He didn't start a game for Boston College his first two seasons. He was too raw. His numbers--not to mention his off-court issues--were hardly worthy of a first or even second round pick. His sophomore year, he averaged 3.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots per game in 27 games, all off the bench. Compare that to Rod Benson, who averaged 13.3 points, 6.3 and 0.5 in 29 games, all but three in a starting role for Cal that same season. But Benson doesn't have Williams' athleticism and in the world of NBA scouts that changes everything.

After a stint in rehab and sitting the team's first two games because of the previous year's drug arrest, Williams started off his junior season like he was worth a lottery pick. In his first 10 games, he averged 14, 7 and 6, leading the nation in blocks. Twice, he had more than 10 blocks: 12 against Providence, 13 against Duquesne. Once he had a triple double, 19, 10 and 13 in the Duquesne game. Another game, against Rhode Island, he came within two assists and a steal of the elusive "5x5" game, with 13 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals and 7 blocks. Not easy in a 40-minute game. His best game, though, was against Kansas. Williams registered 19 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 blocks against the Jayhawks, outshining Julian Wright. He slowed down a little over the next five games and was then thrown off the team.

Up until that point, he was making NBA scouts take notice and not just because of his athleticism. "The real news here is while Williams had been billed as a shot blocker and only a shot blocker up to this point, he has added a wrinkle to his game over the summer," wrote Jonathan Watters for Draft Express in early December. "In this week's action the junior showed off a much-improved back-to-the-basket offensive arsenal, displaying adequate footwork and surprisingly soft touch while using every bit of his impressive length to score over the defense. The issues we have seen with poor hands have seemingly disappeared, and Williams made very good decisions this week once he had the ball in his hands."

There were questions about his willingness to work on one part of his game, rebounding. Wrote Watters after watching him, "Obviously Williams' rebounding totals are going to look a bit worse than they should because he is chasing so many shots on the way up, but a total of 5 rebounds in the two games last week is simply impossible to explain or justify from a player with such formidable natural gifts."

Adi Joseph's notes for that same week read like a pro scout's: "The best shot blocker to come along in years ... Has the ability to alter any shot in the lane, making him a huge defensive presence ... Length is unbelievable. His 7'5" wingspan and defensive mindset make him a menace to opposing shooters. Loves to block jump shooters on the perimeter ... Gets his fair share of steals as well ... Extremely high vertical leap ... Quickness is outstanding defensively... Has finally developed a semblance of an offensive game...Should be a stronger rebounder considering his size and athleticism, similar to Ratliff. Could be a lot better with crisper fundamentals and working on positioning and boxing out better ... Added body strength would allow him to play the center position on the next level."

Faced with the possibility that his off-court issues could very well deny him a place in the NBA Draft, Williams could have retreated to his native Texas and immediately started working with John Lucas, the former NBA player and coach who battled his own drug demons and now does his best to rehab ball players with the same problems. Instead, he delayed that trip, finishing up the academic year.

"Most people wouldn't have done that," said Skinner. "He not only stayed and finished, he did well. And he was never a distraction to the program. In my opinion, that was a tremendous accomplishment."

Then, it was back to Houston, for workouts with Lucas. Sometimes, Lucas succeeds, other times, like with the case of former Net Eddie Griffin, he doesn't. He knows the difference.

"Sean doesn't have any real-life issues," Lucas told the Boston Globe in June. "There are other guys I've had here who have had real-life issues. He doesn't. His issue is, he just wants to smoke some weed sometime -- and you can't. We're learning how to handle life issues without smoking weed to medicate. I would venture to say, he hasn't smoked any more weed than a lot of the other guys who are going to get drafted. The difference is, he got caught."

Lucas also became his advocate, as did Skinner: "Had he finished the season for me, he'd be a top six pick, easy. He's a unique talent."

It was Chad Ford of ESPN who first suggested the Nets were interested. "The kid already had a ton of character questions," Ford wrote in June. "So his dismissal should add fuel to the fire. But the truth is that scouts have always been in love with his size, athleticism and shot-blocking ability...If he had stayed out of trouble, he would've been a lottery pick."

The Nets had a safe pick, Jason Smith of Colorado State, in mind as well, but Smith and Brandon Wright had been hammered by Williams in a workout that the Bobcats had arranged, one that several teams had attended. Lucas told RealGM that Williams outplayed the other two power forwards and that it "wasn’t even close." Reportedly, Williams blocked five of Smith's shots.

Thorn and Stefanski also made a last-minute visit to Houston to talk with Williams. "The first thing they ask me is, 'What happened at BC?'", Williams said at the time. "I just try to give them the rundown and be as honest as possible. I made some mistakes."

On Draft Night, the Nets professed their belief that Williams was not as big a risk as others suggested. They admitted to having "long discussons" before the draft about taking him and made the obligatory references to their luck with another troubled player from a New England school, Marcus Williams. "We looked at it very closely over the past month, and our feeling was that the potential was worth the risk," Thorn said. Fred Kerber of the Post called the pick "the latest gamble".

The Nets' biggest concern was with Williams' "raw talent", not his background. The summer league, the Nets' brain trust said, proved it. He had more personal fouls than rebounds and blocks combined...although he did improve every game.

"He needs a lot of experience," Thorn said in July. "He needs to play. He needs to work on his body. So there are a lot of areas he needs to improve."

"He's just green on both ends," Frank added. "But he's got unbelievable athletic gifts. As long as he's willing to have big eyes, big ears and give a big effort, then he'll make strides."

An Eastern Conference scout, quoted by Al Iannazzone of The Record, was less optimistic. "The main thing is going to be to push this kid," the scout said. "He has no idea about where to be, positioning and running the floor. He didn't run the floor at all. He has tremendous athletic ability, but doesn't get any baskets by running the floor. He's not a good rebounder. He doesn't go up and get the ball in traffic."

Williams disagreed. "I thought I played well in Summer League, I'm sorry," Williams told the Boston Globe. "I heard a lot of people say, 'He wasn't ready.' But I thought I played well, that I got better every day. It was an adjustment for me. It was my first time in the system, with the coaches. I'm feeling them out. They're feeling me out. So, for first-year players, it's a big adjustment. You can't take too much out of it besides watching what kind of skills a player has."

So with few expectations of an immediate return on their investment, the team was surprised at what they saw in training camp, then in preseason, then the regular season. Teammates and coaches expressed awe at what he can be.

Said Carter, who knows something about athleticism, "He's got unbelievable athleticism, and he has a willingness to learn."

"He blocks shots, rebounds; he’s a live wire," Kidd said. "You need those type of guys on your team to keep the ball alive and get you extra shots, block a shot get out and run and finish. He can do all those things."

"Shoot, the kid is as strong as an ox," Jefferson added. "Omigosh. He's 230 pounds with four percent body fat. I'm 240 and 7.2, but (four percent) - that's ridiculously low. He's basically made out of muscle. Pretty much every pound on his body is muscle."

"He can play, no question," said Collins. "He can really help this team."

"I'm really surprised also with Sean. He's really showing - he's got a long way to go, no question about that - but he has the ability to change the game. He's showing that this training camp." said Nachbar.

"He's very athletic. He really doesn't know the game, so just imagine when he does know the game, how good he's going to be," Armstrong said.. "He's good right now and he's going to get better, especially when he learns to look back when Jason's throwing him that ball. He'll learn real quickly when Jason hits him in the head about six or seven times. He'll learn."

"Obviously, there's just a lot of raw, athletic, freakish ability," Allen added. "The thing I keep telling him is just watch the guys in front of you - watch the vets. And he listens."

Then there is the unscripted reaction, one described by the Nets' scribe, Matt McQueeny: "Sean Williams again showing his explosion, taking the ball and raising up in a crowd – over the crowd – to emphatically dunk it home. Left RJ walking up the court in the other direction, mouthing the words 'oh my God'."

So is he Kenyon Martin II, the Restoration?

Ed Stefanski is pretty sure: "I would compare him to a young Kenyon Martin: an athletic big who can run the floor, he jumps as well as Kenyon did, he covers the floor side to side as well," said Stefanski at the press conference introducing him to the media. "He will cover multiple positions. When we were looking at him we saw similarities and I don’t want to put pressure on Sean to say he is the next Kenyon Martin but he was like a Kenyon Martin type of player out there."

"Our feeling was, we've needed a player like this since Kenyon (Martin)," Thorn said. Williams admits some similarities "with just the explosiveness and the energy we bring to the game. It doesn’t put any pressure on me. It actually makes me look forward to getting out on the hardwood and showing the fans what I have."

The Nets have taken to the idea, at least from a marketing perspective. Williams has already been invited to a "Ticket Influencer" event. And why not? While he may not have KMart's tough exterior, he does have his own charisma. The Nets press people describe him as "the always-smiling Sean Williams" who "autographed and high-fived with both kids and adults" at the event.

And with team hit by injuries (again) and disappointing (again), Williams has been one of the team's few bright lights. He has also been one of its better interviews, as Al Iannazzone chronicled in his Record blog, In The 'Zzone, after his breakout game against the Hornets.

What's been the feedback from teammates and coaches?
"It’s all love. All love."

What's the best advice he's gotten?
"Be a professional all the time."

What's that mean?
"I don’t know, man. I just try to follow their lead, ya know?"

You look tired?
"My head hurts, I didn’t eat nothing this morning. I caught traffic. Usually I’ll get Dunkin' Donuts or something."

You didn't want to be late?
"Nah, I don’t wanna be late noooo moooore."

How many calls did you get after the Hornets game?
"Man, my people don’t like me because I don’t answer the phone or return phone calls or nothing. They just send me text messages, be like, ‘We love you, man.'"

Did you hear the crowd?
"When I’m in the game I don’t hear too much of anything. My AAU coach came down to watch me play last night and I’m glad that was the game he came to see. He was like when you step on the court and you do some things they get really krunk out there."

They were krunk?
"Yeah. Yeah."

Jefferson, as usual, offered the most concise assessment: "There weren’t too many surprised looks out there on the court when he was doing what he was doing. It’s just a matter of him continuing to do that and understand that when you start to play well, team’s are going to adjust to you and that’s where you make your most growth."

Added Carter: "It’s always great to see a guy in the beginning and the struggles and how his game just flourishes over a matter of weeks and days sometimes just because he’s comfortable and it kind of clicks in and he gets it."

Others across the league are getting it too. "He plays with amazing energy," Celtics coach Doc Rivers told the Globe. "His athleticism is scary."

Still, there has to be the nagging concern that the team may have to "baby sit" him for a while. He has said all the right things, admitting he was wrong, apologizing to his teammates, etc., of course.

"I'm going to try and stay on the same road I'm on now and stay focused," he said on his return to Boston last week. "I have high expectations for myself. I might surprise some people [with his play], but not me."

John Lucas has said he feels comfortable with Williams' recovery from his drug issues. Lucas told RealGM in June that while Williams has "excellent character", he has bouts of immaturity and that his troubles have occurred while he has been away from structured environments.

"He needs a life coach," said Lucas. The Nets appear ready to give him whatever he needs. He's that special.