'My best years were here in Utah,' former Jazz star Deron Williams says on trip back to Vivint Smart Home Arena

Deron Williams’ game day probably felt familiar. On Monday night, he ate a pregame meal with his teammates, Mehmet Okur and Ronnie Price. Then he drove to the familiar, downtown Salt Lake City arena and walked inside through the same entrance he’d always used. Then came the departure from the norm: Williams walked past the Utah Jazz locker room, and took a courtside seat for the first time as a fan.

Williams, 35, has been retired from basketball for three years now. But while he still calls Utah home, he had been biding his time to make his return to place where he spent the best years of his All-Star career.

“I definitely miss it,” Williams said. “I miss my time here.”

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2005 draft, Williams shined while wearing a Utah Jazz jersey. He averaged 17.3 points and 9.1 assists during six seasons with the franchise, earned multiple All-Star nods, and helped lead the team to a Western Conference Finals. Still, the fallout from Williams’ clashes with Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan and his departure from the team had hung heavy over him for years before he apologized to his old coach in the summer of 2018.

“I have a lot of respect for Coach Sloan,” Williams said Monday. “He is the greatest coach I’ve ever played for. When you’re that young and you are kind of boneheaded, you take for granted the things he was trying to teach you and the things he instilled in you. I wish I could get those back, but you live and you learn.”

Since that meeting, Williams has maintained a relationship with Jazz leaders and said he is excited about the future of the franchise.

“It just seems like they’re doing a really great job here,” he said. “Utah Jazz basketball is exciting for sure. …

“I really like how they play,” Williams added. “That young kid Mitchell is special. He has that it-factor. Then you pair him with Gobert, one of the best big men, best rim protectors in the game — there are so many good pieces on this team.”

Williams played with Bojan Bogdanovic when they both were with the Brooklyn Nets. And the former Jazzman has admired the growth of Joe Ingles’ game over the past six years.

“He’s one of those players you just want on your team,” Williams said of the Aussie. “He does all the little things. He’s added so much to his game. He’s a real problem for people.”

Williams now splits his time between Dallas and Park City, and said Utah has always felt like home.

“I just always loved it,” he said. “The people were always great to me. I made a lot of connections that I still have to this day.”

On Monday night, fans cheered for Williams as he walked through the arena. The former Jazz star toured the renovated building, noting all of the changes from his playing days, and letting the memories flood back to him.

“One that stands out to me is my first playoff game in this arena,” he said. “I remember because I kind of got chills when I ran out. There was a whole other energy that I didn’t know existed until I ran out for that first playoff game. The crowd was already here. There wasn’t an empty seat in this building. Everyone was on their feet, cheering. It was amazing.”

After being traded by the Jazz, Williams went on to play for the Nets, Mavericks and Cavaliers but admits his fondest memories were wearing a Jazz uniform and playing for the fans in Utah.

“My best years were here in Utah,” he said. “It was definitely a lot of great memories.”