66ers' Williams Flourishing in Second Pro Season

The question posed to Cole Aldrich was simple: what’s it like to play alongside Latavious Williams on the Tulsa 66ers?

Aldrich is only 22-years-old, but he’s been around enough talented players to have an informed opinion. He played against the best of the best in three seasons at Kansas University and in the Big 12 Conference and he’s gotten a taste of what the NBA has to offer.

So when you hear Aldrich describe Williams in a hushed tone, in almost a whisper, you can sense the awe in his voice.

“He has a lot to work on just like everybody,” Aldrich says, “but he can jump out of the gym.

He looked away as he stressed that last part, as if he was picturing it himself, as if he was describing a thing of beauty.

“He’s so athletic,” Aldrich continued. “He can go up. I’ve seen a few times on the break they just throw it up and he just comes out of nowhere and boom. It’s just one of those things where you’re like, wow.”

Wow. That’s a pretty good assessment and a general response when talking about what Williams has accomplished and continues to do at the D-League level:

He grabbed a franchise record 21 rebounds in a game in December. He ranks 13th in the league in rebounding at 8.6 boards a game and sixth in offensive rebounds per game at 3.4. He averages 13.4 points a night, shoots 63.3 percent from the field and averages 1.1 blocks a game. Compare that to last season, when Williams averaged 7.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 52.8 percent shooting and 0.7 blocks.

‘Wow’ is probably what you’d say if you were to see Williams catapult himself high for one of those dunks, or springboard his way to dozens of rebounds, or when you hear the story of just how far he’s come since the 66ers plucked him straight out of high school in the 2009 D-League Draft.

Because by now you probably know the gist of Williams’ story: first player to ever go directly from high school to the D-League, a small town kid from Starkville, Miss., who passed on college and international basketball to pave his own way to the NBA, a player who survived and learned through his first year of pro ball, heard his name called in the NBA Draft, then saw himself traded to the Thunder organization, putting him back with the 66ers for one more year of seasoning.

There are several reasons as to why everything has seemed to fall into place now for Williams, the spry 6-8 freak of an athlete who is still realizing his potential. As Williams has matured off the court, he’s kept pace on it as well. From the time the 66ers drafted him up to now, he has developed good habits on the court. He’s put in the work off it. He’s become a student of the game, always one to heed the advice of coaches or experienced teammates. And he’s remained grounded and humbled throughout it all.

"The thing that stands out most about the last two years with Latavious is his approach to and understanding of the game,” Thunder Executive Vice President/General Manager Sam Presti said. “He has slowly built a nice foundation that allows him to maximize the natural instincts he has as a rebounder and cutter.”

Williams and those close to him will always remember his first day on the job.

He made the long drive to Tulsa from Louisiana with an AAU coach and upon arrival for the first time, not long after the 66ers had drafted him out of high school, he headed directly to a local Gold’s Gym to meet up with Head Coach Nate Tibbetts and assistant coach Dale Osbourne.

Williams had no idea what to expect.

“I just wanted to see what it was going to be like and see what the season was going to be like and see how other players were,” he said. “See how good everybody was and see what you’ve got to do to get better to get to the next level.”

As it turned out, it was a lot more work than he had expected.

“We really started with the basics,” Osbourne said, “the fundamentals with him.”

The culture shocks came fast and furious.

The two-a-days during training camp was something he had never experienced. The playbook was so detailed, so foreign, that he would often stay 40 minutes after practice every day just to get it down pat. And the competition, well, it was much different than what he was used to at the high school level. These were pros he was dealing with, guys who had played four years of college, had a cup of coffee in the NBA and busted their chops overseas. So for Williams, going through a 66ers practice was like someone trying to navigate a foreign land without a compass.

“I think if you would have been here last year this time, everywhere coach Osbourne walked, Tay probably would have ran into him if he would have stopped,” Tibbetts said. “He followed coach Os around everywhere. It was like we were talking in a different language and he was seeing different things that he had never seen before and coach Os was kind of his sound barrier.”

Tibbetts said that Williams didn’t know how to get into a proper defensive stance last season. The coaching staff stuck around after practice to teach him how to bend his knees and keep his back, something so fundamental that coaches typically don’t have to do at this level.

During those after-practice sessions, the coaches would also go over terminology, teaching him words and positions like ‘dunkers spot,’ ‘elbow,’ ‘bend,’ and ‘slot.’

The thing that the coaches appreciated the most from Williams was that he knew he had to get better in a lot of areas, which made him coachable. Heck, Williams said he didn’t start taking basketball all that seriously until the 10th grade.

“I said I just want to come out here and get better every day,” Williams said. “Just come out here and work, get better and see where it leads me too.”

Luckily, forward Marcus Lewis was there to help smooth the transition for Williams.

A Long Beach, Calif., native and four-year player at Oral Roberts University, Lewis knew his way around Tulsa. He also had a car and was willing to share an apartment with Williams. When Lewis first met Williams, he said he came off very much like a freshman in college. Being a positive role model and keeping Williams out of trouble was a role Lewis embraced.

Wherever Lewis went, Williams usually followed. To the barbershop. To the grocery store. To do laundry. Everywhere.

“I taught him the basics,” Lewis said. “Turn on the oven, preheat the oven, basic things like that. You don’t just turn the oven on and throw stuff in there. How to cook simple stuff. I think his go-to meal back in the day was Hot Pockets. He eats a lot more healthy now. We’ve got Bryce (Daub) here so he’s always telling us what to eat. He’s more like a pasta guy now, spaghetti, lasagna.”

Added Williams: “He taught me how to cook everything – chicken and everything, hot wings and stuff. He knows how to cook.”

Lewis and Williams also roomed together in a house not far from the Thunder’s practice facility when the two were getting ready to train and play for the Thunder’s Summer League team. When it came time to choose roommates this season, Williams chose Lewis again. This time they’re sharing a house. Lewis doesn’t mind one bit.

“We’re all trying to help Tay because we know he has so much potential to be a real good player, an NBA player,” Lewis said.

But the peaks and valleys didn’t stop there for Williams.

Sure, he knew how to cook, had a better understanding of the playbook, no longer got lost walking around the Tulsa Convention Center, and knew how to act more professional. But the D-League is a 50-game season. Tibbetts said that Williams probably didn’t know that when he signed up. Eventually, all the games, practices and traveling took its toll.

“Every once in a while you hit a brick wall,” Williams said. “I wasn’t used to playing in all these games.”

Everyone remembers when Williams hit that first wall pretty hard. It was right at the midpoint of the regular season, and the team was on a flight home from a road game.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I’m busted mentally and physically,’” Osbourne recalled. “That was the middle of the season. You could just see it. I’ll never forget the conversation. I told him before the season you’re going to have a lot of highs and a lot of lows and we just want you to be consistent and continue to build good work habits.”

And so he did.

Williams’ moment of clarity, the time when he can say he finally felt comfortable, didn’t come until the week leading into the D-League Playoffs.

“I was getting used to everything, knowing what I can and cannot do and I just felt real comfortable out there,” he said. “That’s when I started playing my game.”

In eight playoff games, which included seven starts, Williams averaged 11.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 61.2 percent field goal shooting to help Tulsa reach the D-League Finals.

When it was all over, he had a few weeks to regroup before he began training for the NBA Draft in Houston, where his agent is based and also where Tibbetts met up with him. Williams insisted that the Draft never entered his mind throughout the season. He said he was more focused on helping the 66ers win. Either way, after hearing his name called on draft night and then subsequently traded from Miami to Oklahoma City, Williams found solace and comfort in the fact that he’d be in familiar territory. But he wasn’t completely satisfied.

“It was cool but again, it was second round so there wasn’t anything guaranteed,” he said. “I just knew I had to come back out here and work.”

Soon, Williams found himself in Oklahoma City, working out with the Thunder and then competing in the NBA Summer League in Orlando, where he turned some heads with a handful of athletic plays both in the half court and transition.

“Playing with them, a lot of pros, it was a good experience,” Williams said. “It helped all around. We worked on everything. We were lifting weights, running hills with medicine balls, then coming back and playing 5-on-5, going hard every day. You can’t do nothing but improve.”

Now we’re in February of 2011, and the 66ers are on one of the longest winning streaks in D-League history, and Williams is still improving, still thriving, still making people say ‘wow.’

The differences between last season and this season are night and day.

“This year, I know everything,” Williams said. “I’m comfortable once I step on the court. I don’t have to worry about messing up because I already know everything. That’s the good thing about it.”

He’s developed a much better defensive stance, so much so that he can guard both perimeter players and power forwards. Last season, the coaching staff used to praise every single thing Williams did correctly. This year, they’re getting him to focus on the little details. Williams knows what’s expected of him, and the 66ers are sure to challenge him on a daily basis.

More differences:

Last year, Williams weighed in at 195 pounds; this year he’s at 225.

After spending much of his rookie season in the paint, Williams has developed a handle and is starting to get comfortable on the perimeter as an offensive player.

And when the coaching staff puts in new plays during practice, Osbourne doesn’t have a shadow.

“This year he doesn’t look for me anymore,” he said. “He’s kind of like, 'I can figure this out on my own.'”

In terms of becoming a student of the game, Williams has adopted film study as a new hobby. Last season, the coaching staff would often splice together individual clips for Williams. This season, he prefers to watch game film from start to finish.

One aspect of Williams’ game that’s continued to evolve is his rebounding. After pulling down 2.6 rebounds per minute as a rookie, he’s increased his average to 3.3 boards a minute this season.

“We didn’t know he could rebound like that….It just really took everybody off the charts,” Osbourne said. “When he goes in for rebounds, it’s kind of a scary thing to watch how fast and how quickly he can get off the floor.”

Tibbetts said that Williams is such a natural when it comes to rebounds, that sometimes his first and second jumps seem effortless. But this season, he’s learned that there’s more to rebounding than just jumping.

“I think he understands angles,” Tibbetts said. “He’s kind of slippery. He can get to spots. His athletic ability, sometimes he goes and gets rebounds, you’re like, wow, that’s an NBA rebounder or an NBA dunk.”

But through it all, Williams’ southern roots, his laidback demeanor and quiet persona, have never changed.

He almost has a dislike for the spotlight. During pregame introductions, Williams refuses to run through a tunnel of teammates for high fives; instead, he stands off to the side with the reserve players. When the 66ers were announced one by one during a Thunder game last season at Oklahoma City Arena, Williams dreaded walking out before a sold out crowd; he just didn’t like the attention.

Off the court, he’s started to warm up for people, though. During a meet-and-greet with local supporters and business people prior to the start of this season, Williams was seen carrying conversations and introducing himself to strangers; he didn’t shy away.

But when it comes to on the court, getting Williams to not be so selfless has remained a challenge. In a league where everyone is trying to be the next D-League Call-Up, Williams is more concerned with the success of his team than his individual stats. And this is coming from a 21-year-old.

“He’ll probably tell you that all he cares about is winning,” Tibbetts said. “I ask him all the time, ‘how’d you think you played last night.’ And he said, ‘well, we won.’ And I say, ‘it’s not all about winning, we’re trying to help you get better.’ And he wants to win. He’s not a guy that’s going to search out shots. It’s like I have to draw up a play for him to shoot. He just wants to fit in and he wants to do things right, and I think that’s a credit to him and being around the system and him knowing that we want guys to play the right way.”

Said Williams: “I just get out there and say, I’m going to do whatever it takes to help the team win. As long as we come out with a win, I’m feeling good about whatever I had.”

Contact Chris Silva