I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a sophomore in high school sitting in Mr. Bittner’s keyboarding class—I mean international business—or was it intro to business? Photoshop? Two things I know for sure, it was Mr. Bittner’s class and on the front page of NBA.com was a blockbuster trade to my favorite team, the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets. Deron Williams, a top five point guard, was on his way to us after the Jerry Sloan fall out. Coming off a Jersey Shore walk-of-shame-ugly season (12-70), this news was the first scent of optimism since the Jason Kidd and Vince Carter era ended.
But today, much of that optimism has been swept away. Drops in points, assists, rebounds, free throws and nagging injuries all for the bargain price of 98 million dollars has Net fans just about fed up with the former All-Star’s underwhelming performance. After successful offseason surgery on both ankles, getting back scoring big man Brook Lopez from injury and getting an established coach in Lionel Hollins, Williams has all the pieces to be the stud he was in Utah. And he better be just that.
When Williams first came over from Utah he had legitimate excuses. The team was coming off a historically bad year and had little around him to work with. But as the pieces around him have gotten better and the moment has gotten bigger, Williams has faded farther and farther away from the player he was before the move. Williams was regularly thrown in the discussion for a top-five point guard in the league, continuously averaging nearly 20 points and 10 assists and getting to the free throw line at a good rate. Slashing, bullying smaller guards and making big plays, he was the whole package. Now it’s like watching an entirely different player. More three point attempts, less free throw attempts and the once big, bruising guard now looks like Tarzan and plays like Jane.
In his defense, Williams has had several nagging injuries since joining the organization: a wrist injury when he first came over and most recently injuries to both ankles which Williams underwent surgery for this summer. Now, he is supposedly healthy (he came out with an offseason workout video showing of his healthy ankles and handles), and with Paul Pierce gone, Williams must step up and be the leader of this team. Joe Johnson may be a great scorer, but he is not a vocal leader; and while everyone may look to Kevin Garnett, he’s proven before that his needle is dangerously close to E.
Williams has earned very little of that enormous contract and has come up microscopically small in the post season. The disappointments have followed: getting upset in the first round in 2013, being heavily outplayed by Kyle Lowry this past season and even going 0 for 9 in game two of the Miami Heat series.
When healthy Williams, at 30 years old, has all the tools to put himself back on the right track. The always wide-open East has plenty of opportunity. But it’s all about mindset. Williams admitted last season at times his confidence was shaken. Williams has taken responsibility for his poor play and hasn’t kidded himself, making public statements such as, “I feel like I’ve kind of let people down, so I don’t like feeling like that. I take my job seriously. I work hard in the offseason. I work hard every day. It’s just real frustrating not to be able to play how I’m capable of playing.” Williams knows confidence is key, “I used to step on the court and feel like I was the best player no matter who I played against, so I gotta get back to that. Even if I’m not the best player on the court, I gotta feel like I am.”
All eyes will be on Williams as he tries to retake form. There are some solid pieces around him, but at the end of the day the Nets fate depends heavily on this Illinois basketball player. Mr. Bittner would be disappointed if he knew I wasn’t always paying attention in his class, but he’d be flat-out pissed if I couldn’t even tell him it was worth it.
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