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The life of a hoops vagabond: C.J. Williams on mentoring, hoping for his next shot

Brooklyn Nets Media Day Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Since the stoppage of NBA and G League basketball, C.J. Williams, the Long Island Nets veteran swingman, has been at home in North Carolina, waiting for his next opportunity. It’s been a tough couple months. The G League, unlike the NBA, isn’t coming back. So, he’s doing what he can to prepare for his next step. He’s already been part of 10 organizations, from overseas clubs in Cyprus, France and Italy to 53 games with NBA teams and another 191 with their G League affiliates. He’s the very essence of a journeyman, a basketball vagabond who plays for the love of the game.

Moreover, the 29-year-old Williams had to cope with something completely new: a self-quarantine back in March. telling the Wingspan Podcast this week...

“Unfortunately, when basketball got put on pause, I had to quarantine for a little bit. I had some indirect contact with Kevin Durant and I had to basically quarantine myself once we found out that he was positive. After that, I was able to leave New York and come back home to North Carolina and have been here since. Just trying to stay in shape and find different creative ways to workout...

“I just self quarantined. I wanted to take the test but at that time, they weren’t testing anyone who wasn’t showing symptoms and I wasn’t. They told me that I couldn’t test and that is why I did the 14 days because they said if I showed any symptoms during that 14 days then they would allow me to get tested.”

And so, Williams is once again wondering where he’ll be playing next and hoping the worst is behind him. He’s not worried about himself though...

“To be honest, it would be really hard to choose to play just because I know how uncertain these times are right now and the fact that there are so many things that could possibly happen, it is just hard for me to find a way to put basketball at the forefront to be able to play,” Williams said.

“Even when I had to quarantine, I wasn’t really worried about myself. My sister and I live together in the offseason so I told her specifically like ‘hey, I am a little bit afraid to come home because I had this indirect contact.

“They are saying that I can be a carrier and not show any symptoms and then I give it to you and then you have symptoms and it could possibly affect you. That is the biggest part that would be hard for me. Just knowing that I can be a carrier or someone can be a carrier and not even know it and have no idea of it then things can just develop from there. I just think right now, it would be really hard to find a way for me to say yes, lets go ahead and play.”

While in Uniondale, Williams served as the veteran on the team, holding valuable experience. He was in Brooklyn Nets camp last fall, then assigned to Long Island in part to mentor the kids. To him, helping his teammates on and off the court is what he enjoyed the most and credits his teammates for being sponges when he spoke.

“It’s so funny to hear you say that and know that I am the veteran now,. Trust me, the guys would call me old all the time and I am the old man and I had no problems with it. It was just interesting because guys would come to me with a lot of questions.

“They would ask me things and they were all sponges and that is what I enjoyed. They would embrace me as the leader of the team, the veteran of the team, and that helped things run so smoothly. Guys would ask me questions not just about basketball as far as the NBA and the G League, they would ask me questions about things off the court.

Certain people would ask me things about how to know when these dates are when you are going to get your money or when you are supposed to apply for certain benefits you get and how to do those things. That is what I enjoyed the most. I really felt like those guys were some of the best followers to my leadership that I have ever had.”

When asked if Williams took any of his teammates under his wing, he quickly responded by praising Devin Cannady, the sharpshooting guard who graduated last week from Princeton with a Sociology degree.

“I would say Devin Cannady was probably the guy who I spoke with the most and advised the most,” Williams said. “I tell him all the time, he is still a Princeton guy. You can see all the Princeton in him but I have still been talking to him and everything. He has a lot going on right now and doing very well for himself. I am happy for him and I have spoken to him a few times and everything but he asks me all types of questions all the time. He is a sponge so I would say if anybody, it was Devin.”

Along with Cannady, Williams had high praise for the Nets two most recent draft picks: Jaylen Hands and Nic Claxton. Williams praised Hands for his improving maturity while noting Claxton plays every game in Uniondale like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

“As far as Jaylen Hands, I saw growth. I saw a lot of growth from the beginning of the year till the stoppage of our season. I saw a lot of growth from him and learning how to be a professional and how to be responsible for your own growth. At the beginning of the year, there were things that he would do, I’m not going to expose those things, but there would be certain things we would do that you are like ‘hey, like this is a different game. It is not college.’ So then, at the end of the year, he was starting to really understand why this is why they are saying that. I am more of a threat if I allow things to develop rather than try to go get it every single time.”

“For Nic Claxton, being a guy who spent the first couple months up there [in Brooklyn], a lot of guys would feel some type of way when the team would ask them to come down. He wanted to come down. He wanted to be there to get the opportunity to play the game and get himself ready for that next level. To see that from him was probably the biggest compliment I can give him and he handled our games as if it was the NBA Finals Game 7 every game. Every single game. He was a real professional at such a young age and I was impressed by that.”

As for the Long Island Nets 2019-20 season, Williams had high praise for the Nets organization, his teammates, and the G League.

Williams, who first stepped foot into what was then called the D-League in 2013 as a member of the Los Angeles D-Fenders, spoke about how the NBA’s minor league has evolved. He reflected on those days, saying he strongly believed Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers GM, didn’t know who he was. With the Nets, he noticed that things were different. williams said staff, players and scouts from the Brooklyn Nets often showed up at games at Nassau Coliseum. Williams felt like he was a part of the parent club while wearing the G League affiliate uniform.

“I think that the way the G League is going right now is fantastic. It is really almost perfect because you have that opportunity to reach out to the NBA team. You know, you have your contacts there and you can stay in touch with them and that feeling of like ‘ok, I am with the Long Island Nets but I am a part of the Brooklyn Nets organization and they know my name and know who I am. My first year in the G League, well then it was the D League, I do not think Mitch Kupchak knew who I was like I really believe that. It was one of those things that we practiced there but nobody would be there or anything.

“This past season with Long Island, there would be times that staff members from Brooklyn would be in Long Island and watching us practice or they would come to the game and I would see assistant coaches and scouts from Brooklyn right there courtside. I think that feeling of knowing that you are a part of an NBA team even if you are with the G League team, it makes you play harder. It makes you feel like the G League is giving me this opportunity to progress. Whether we want to admit it or not, that is what the G League is for. It is to help players, coaches, staff members, and everyone that is involved with the G League to progress to the next level. I think that kind of exposure you have to everything as far as the TV and the NBA team, I just love that part about it and is my favorite part about it.”

That level of care continued even after the G League was cancelled in mid-March. Williams said Shaun Fein, the head coach of Long Island, and Matt Riccardi, the GM, remain in touch weekly with their players. Williams noted that level of communication speaks for the integrity of the organization.

“I have actually talked to them at least once or twice a week. I actually talked to Coach Fein the other day and he just checked up on me. Matt Riccardi checked up on me a couple times just trying to make sure that we are all staying safe and stuff like that so we still communicate and everything. That right there shows you the integrity of the organization as a whole.”

As for rating the season, Williams spoke about the bumps in the road along the season and the team fighting hard for a playoff spot before the suspension of their season. To him, he believes that the opportunity of being in the playoffs would have been special...

“I would say, on a scale of 1 1-to-10, it was a 7. Obviously, we had the rough start and then we kind of picked things up a little bit, hit our nice little stride, then had a little bit of a slip up, but I really believe that at the point that we were at, we gave ourselves a great opportunity to make the playoffs. I feel like once you make the playoffs, specifically in the G League, anything can happen. I really believe that we had an opportunity to do something great. It is just unfortunate that we couldn’t have finished things out and see where things would go.”

Williams spoke as well about the advice he would give to any player who is pursuing an opportunity overseas while still hoping for an NBA shot...

“I would say be open minded. Embrace whatever culture you end up going to. Maybe you do not have to take on that culture but just be ready to learn a little bit about the culture because you are going to need to use your teammates as your family.

“Your teammates at that time become your family at some point. You see them everyday, practicing with them, going to dinners with them, you’re going on the road with them, and to hotels with them. I mean, it is the same here when it comes to your team but it is even more amplified over there. You are not seeing your family as often as you normally would so just be open minded and be ready to embrace the culture and everything should go smoothly at that point.”

As for Williams, he provided a personal look at his relocation experiences from playing overseas and being away from his family. In fact, while Williams pursued a career in Cyprus, it was the first time he was away from his family.

“For me, it was a big adjustment going over there and alone for the first time in my life as far as when I was in Cyprus,” Williams said. “When I got to Italy and France, it was a little easier because I had done it for a couple years of being away but the strain it has on your family is that you kind of have to begin to develop a routine and thankfully I grew up in at the time of technology so I can FaceTime my parents or my sister. I would call them on Sundays and it would be my Sunday dinner while it would be their lunch for them. We would all sit down and get on FaceTime, eat, talk about what is going on in our lives and stuff. Once we were able to do that, it made things kind of go smoothly. They would come out every once in a while for weeks at a time and it is just one of those things you have to adjust to. Once you make that adjustment and set a routine, everything just starts to run smoothly.”

As for playing on the G League level, there have been times he would not unpack his suitcase.

“It’s obviously easier. But, it is the same thing. When you are in the NBA or the G League, you are on the road a lot. I tell people all the time that it is difficult because you are home for a week then you are gone for two or you’re home for three days then you are gone for five. It is a little difficult to adjust and there have been times like when I was with Minnesota, I don’t think I unpacked my suitcase one time. I just kind of let my stuff stay in the suitcase because I was constantly on the go.”

Now what? As NBA basketball is gaining steady traction to return to action on July 31st, Williams’ future is undetermined. As his main goal is to get another shot at the NBA level, to him, he is taking his future plans day by day

“Don’t know what to expect next. Once everything starts to fall back into place and we get a sense of normalcy, I will discuss with my agent what to do next. I am not sure whether I will be here or if I will play overseas but it is just one of those things as of now I got to take day by day and when the time comes, really evaluate where I am in my career and what I want to do.”

Williams turns 30 in February. He believes he has a lot more basketball in him but based on all that experience, on and off the court, it’s hard to imagine coaching isn’t an option.