Drafted and stashed, but not forgotten: Nigel Williams-Goss kept close contact with the Utah Jazz during two seasons abroad

Right after a big win, Nigel Williams-Goss could expect a congratulatory text. After a tough night, there might be a “Hang in there” message waiting for him after the game. The point guard was alone in Europe, 5,000 miles from his NBA dream. He had been drafted and stashed by the Utah Jazz, but he had not been forgotten.

“Dennis [Lindsey] and I had a lot of talks over the last two years,” Williams-Goss said. “It got to the point where I said even if I never come back to Utah, I appreciate how much support you guys are giving me while I’m over here.”

But Williams-Goss is coming back.

Two years after being drafted with the No. 55 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the point guard is back in the United States, back in Salt Lake City, finally ready to don a Utah Jazz jersey.

For Williams-Goss, the multiyear deal he inked this week is the realization of a lifetime of work and sacrifice. For the Jazz and Lindsey, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, it’s the realization of a patient plan to get the 24-year-old point guard ready for the game’s highest level from afar—the player and team staying in regular contact and slowly working toward a reunion.

“Sometimes it’s contractual, sometimes it’s developmental, sometimes you don’t have roster availability,” Lindsey said about the necessity to send a player overseas. “But there’s gratification that comes with working with a player and an agent and working inside their development plan and having it come to fruition.”

Williams-Goss left Gonzaga after his junior season with one of college basketball’s finest résumés: a McDonald’s All-American coming out of the prestigious Findley Prep; the West Coast Conference’s player of the year as a junior; a consensus All-American who had led his team to the NCAA title game. Still, the guard had to wait until late in the second round before he heard his name called on draft night in June 2017.

“I’m not going to lie: I had a lot of mixed emotions throughout the draft,” he said. “I felt like I’d done all I needed to do in college to earn myself a better draft spot than 55. But it’s funny because the Jazz were the one team I was hoping to go to. It’s cool because I came to the team I wanted to come to–just a little bit later than I thought I deserved.”

It wouldn’t be the last time Williams-Goss would need to be patient. The point guard suited up for the Jazz in Summer League that year. But Williams-Goss didn’t see much room on a Utah roster that included guards Ricky Rubio, Danté Exum, Raul Neto, and Donovan Mitchell.

“Even if I would have killed it at Summer League, there just really wasn’t a spot that was going to be open,” Williams-Goss said. “It was either stay here and play for the G League team or go across the water and develop.”

That’s when he met with Lindsey and mapped out a plan.

First stop: Belgrade, Serbia.

Williams-Goss signed with KK Partizan and quickly became a key contributor for one of the country’s most beloved clubs. He averaged better than 17 points and 7 assists a game, across all competitions, helping Partizan win the Serbian Cup and earning MVP honors along the way.

In basketball-crazed Belgrade, where fans light flares inside the gym and throw things on the court if they disagree with a referee’s call, Williams-Goss was beloved. At one point, fans stopped him on the street to give him a cake with his jersey number on it.

But Williams-Goss also had another group of fans watching. Throughout the season, Williams-Goss exchanged text messages and phone calls with Jazz officials in the U.S. He met with front office leaders and Jazz scouts in Serbia on multiple occasions. Mitchell and former Jazz center Ekpe Udoh met up with Williams-Goss for the EuroLeague Final Four in Belgrade. And shortly after winning the Serbian Cup, Williams-Goss received a gift basket from the Utah Jazz.

“The support they gave me was phenomenal,” he said.

Jazz officials, however, wanted Williams-Goss to spend one more year developing his game. So last season, Williams-Goss took a step up, into the EuroLeague, signing with Olympiacos in Greece. The guard was eager to get the chance to play for Olympiacos coach David Blatt because of his experience as a head coach in both Europe and the NBA. Williams-Goss averaged 10.1 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 38.4 percent from three.

Williams-Goss had dinners in Athens with the Jazz’s executive director of international scouting, Richard Smith, and later with Lindsey himself. They’d been watching, they told Williams-Goss, and they were impressed with his development.

“All NBA players are motivated,” Lindsey said, “but our fans will soon see he’s in the top one percent in terms of competitiveness and intelligence and motivation.”

In Europe, Williams-Goss had gotten the chance to play against pro talent with a 24-second shot clock. Against the European rules, where defenses are allowed to pack the paint, he had to further develop his floater and his 3-point shooting.

“He got the experience of handling the pressure that comes with being a point guard,” Lindsey said. “He was starting to show signs of developing as an excellent shooter toward the end of his time at Gonzaga. But he’s taken the next step.”

Williams-Goss knew an NBA deal could be possible coming into this summer. Then, last week, the point guard missed two calls from his agent because he was working out. When the two finally connected, the guard learned of the offer from Utah.

“It’s such a blessing, man,” he said. “When you work every day and you pray every single day from the time you’re 10 years old and you get that one call that makes a dream a reality, it’s an indescribable feeling. I’m just on cloud nine to be back.”

Drafting and stashing a prospect doesn’t always play out this way. “But every so often, all of the objectives align and you’re able to make a marriage work,” Lindsey said.

“Now to make it a reality is that much more special,” Williams-Goss added. “I think I appreciate it more, my whole journey.”