DA's Morning Tip
Driven player-turned-executive Brandon Williams awaits his NBA GM opportunity
Current 76ers executive takes long, steady road to forge career path as serious GM candidate
While everyone else gets set for the Draft or The Finals, the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic continue their pursuits of a general manager. Orlando seems content waiting until the Cleveland Cavaliers’ GM, David Griffin, is available to talk after the playoffs. Atlanta, however, has moved full-speed ahead through a search firm handling the process along with the team’s ownership group.
The Hawks’ job has been linked to any number of candidates, from familiar former NBA GMs (like Joe Dumars), to team executives who’ve interviewed for other GM jobs in the past few years (like the Washington Wizards’ Tommy Sheppard, the Golden State Warriors’ Travis Schlenk and the Houston Rockets’ Gersson Rosas), to ex-players looking to move into management roles (like Chauncey Billups and our Turner Sports colleague, Brent Barry).
The Hawks haven’t indicated anything concerning when they’d like to make a hire. Principal owner Tony Ressler said on a conference call earlier this month that while the team would like to have someone in place before the June 22 NBA Draft, it’s prepared to use its current front office personnel — sans ex-GM Wes Wilcox, who was reassigned within the organization — to handle things.
But Atlanta, according to sources, also has interviewed someone whose name that may not be as familiar as some of the others, though it may be soon — 76ers Vice President of Basketball Administration and Delaware 87ers General Manager Brandon Williams. The 42-year-old Williams has taken a long, steady approach to making himself ready to run an NBA team, with a wealth of experiences that check just about every management box imaginable since he stopped playing professionally in 2005. (Williams played 18 games in the NBA over three seasons.)
If the Hawks don’t hire him to run their team, someone else should — soon — and likely will.
“I was told, by a couple of OG general managers when I first started in the league, that there were three main types” of executives, Williams said over the weekend. “There was the cap type, the personnel type and there was operations rule guy. If you found a good general manager, he could master one of those things. If you found a great general manager, he could master two, and nobody could manage all three. And so I kind of made it my mission to master three. That’s what my process has been about.”
Williams has spent the last four years in Philadelphia, working both for the analytically dynamic former GM of the 76ers, Sam Hinkie, whose “Process” will be adjudicated until the end of time, and for the more traditional front office structure ushered in last year by the team’s special advisor, longtime NBA owner, executive and USA Basketball chair Jerry Colangelo, and current President of Basketball Operations Bryan Colangelo. Under Hinkie, Williams ran the 76ers’ NBA D-League team, but also handled a lot of the trade calls, massaging of agents, dealing with player needs and wants and other duties that a GM has to do. And it was telling that after Hinkie resigned last year amid ownership dissatisfaction with the slow pace of the team’s rebuilding, the Colangelos kept Williams.
“I have gotten to know him over these last 18 months,” Jerry Colangelo said via text Sunday. “Solid basketball background — player, time in NBA offices, GM of NBA development team and player personnel. He’s bright, articulate and presents himself well.”
Williams played collegiately at Davidson, where he is still the school’s 14th all-time leading scorer, in the pre-Stephen Curry days, before going undrafted in 1996. That began almost a decade bouncing around the world playing ball — cups of NBA coffee with the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Hawks, as well as LaCrosse, Huntsville, Sioux Falls and Rockford in the CBA and he also played for teams in Greece, France, Germany and Israel. But it helped form his scouting eye.
“I was not a star in this league,” Williams says. “I had to fight and work and scratch and claw. And it got me what I got. I overachieved. I was never supposed to be in an NBA uniform. To do it here, in the minors, overseas, it’s like, guys, this is an awesome way, but a very difficult way, to make a living. You’ve got to be able to show up and perform your greatest hits every night. If your voice is hoarse every third night, you’ve got no shot.”
“I drafted and acquired all the players to the market with no coaching staff. Started the first day, I was able to get the head coach in by the start of practice and we tried coaches out during training camp. It was chaotic. But it was a great experience.”
Brandon Williams, on his experience as the first GM of the Delaware 87ers
Williams started at the NBA office in 2005 in its Community and Player Programs department. He quickly impressed — “smart, knowledgeable, applied,” said one high-ranking source — and got his law degree from Rutgers in 2012 while serving as the NBA’s Associate Vice President of Basketball Operations. He was in the league office for eight years, where he could occasionally be found schmoozing in then-Commissioner David Stern’s office, before going to Philly in 2013.
There, he handled all matter of tasks for Presti, starting with running the team’s new D-League team in Delaware.
“I got the job a month before the season, with no place to play, no place to practice, no staff,” Williams said. “I drafted and acquired all the players to the market with no coaching staff. Started the first day, I was able to get the head coach in by the start of practice and we tried coaches out during training camp. It was chaotic. But it was a great experience.”
During his four years, the 87ers have sent several coaches up to the parent club. Former 87ers head coaches Kevin Young and Rod Baker are now with the parent club — Young on the bench as an assistant for coach Brett Brown while Baker is a 76ers scout. John Bryant, a former 87ers assistant, is now one of the Sixers’ player development coaches.
Among the 87ers callups to the NBA, Williams is “probably the proudest of Sean Kilpatrick,” he says of the Nets’ guard, who broke through this year with Brooklyn, averaging 13 points per game — including a 38-point eruption in December against the Clippers.
“He was another player that people, if they’re honest, said the same thing: 6-4, 200, not athletic, a scorer, not a shooter,” Williams said. “Everybody passed. I got him in a trade. I chased him. And I got him. And my message to him was we’re going to create a brand around an identifiable skill. It’s not scoring; it’s going to be shooting.
“You have to be a shooter who knows how to score a little bit. And we worked at it. And I told him, it’s going to take longer than you think. There were days that he was frustrated and didn’t want to come back. But there was a real buy-in. We had a real relationship. And I walk around Barclays (Center) and his face is on a Fathead on the side of the building. And I think, that kid, that’s a Seven.”
But Williams also had to help put out a lot of fires, including the fallout from several off-court incidents involving the 76ers’ 2014 first-round pick, Jahlil Okafor. The constant losing was hard on everybody — Hinkie, Brown, other players, team staff and team officials. Williams was someone who talked a lot of people off a lot of figurative ledges.
“He can seamlessly work with and through a coach having a hard time, players going through a hiccup or two and a media storm,” says another league source of Williams, who’s watched him work over the years. “This matters and I have seen it first hand.”
Fixing the Hawks will take a lot of tough decisions, starting with whether to retain unrestricted free agent Paul Millsap, who will be looking for a deserved huge payday after four straight All-Star appearances. But, he’s 32, and the Hawks aren’t going to be a title contender next season even if they keep him. It’s a tough call, because losing Millsap for nothing will almost certainly doom Atlanta to a substantial rebuild, with Coach Mike Budenholzer still due $21 million through the end of his contract.
If Williams get the job, he will not be chained to a desk, and he will evaluate everything and everyone. He still has enough spring at 6-foot-6 to knock down a shot or two, and enough clout to have frank conversations with players about how to get out of slumps and how to deal with expectations.
“You might find me on a treadmill; you might find me shagging balls,” Williams said. “Jerryd Bayless dared me to dunk, and I dared him back.”
There’s nothing wrong with hiring someone who’s done a job before, or giving someone with a long resume with teams a chance to run their own shop. There’s also nothing wrong with reaching outside of your comfort zone to pick someone who has quietly done everything that everyone says they want people to do to get a chance — pay your dues, learn from both successes and failures, show an ability to work with all kinds of different people and have the eye to find talent on and off the court where others don’t.
I asked Williams to imagine making his pitch to a prospective team. Who is this guy that you’re hiring?
“The guy they’re getting,” he said, “is a guy that’s been competing against everybody for the past 12 years.”
Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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