When the Thunder went out and traded for Latavious Williams on draft day, the 21-year-old forward really never left the Thunder family. And of all the players that have passed through the Thunder's pipeline in the Tulsa 66ers, Williams has taken the most circuitous route to get to where he is today.
Consider this: at a time when high school prospects are looking for playing opportunities overseas in an attempt to forgo college, Williams found a way to stay in the states and made history in the process last October by becoming the first player to go directly from high school to the NBA Developmental League.
After a season of learning curves and growing pains both on and off the court, Williams' name was placed in the pool of candidates for the 2010 NBA Draft the after the 66ers' season concluded with a buzzer-beater loss to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the D-League Finals in April.
When the Miami Heat drafted Williams with the No. 48 pick in last Thursday's draft, it looked like Williams was about to start a completely new chapter in his life as a professional basketball player. But moments later, everything changed for the Starkville, Miss., native. Williams found himself right where his journey as a pro basketball player began, with the Thunder and presumably back with the 66ers for another season of evaluation and development.
Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti said the organization sought out players like Williams, prospects who help maximize the Thunder's efforts in Tulsa, players who put in the time both collectively and individually. Presti calls these types of players "earners," and Williams embodied those characteristics.
"Populating that team with like-minded players and coaches only bolsters and adds depth to our efforts in Oklahoma City," Presti said.
Williams is the latest example of just how the Tulsa-Oklahoma City connection operates.
Because he was drafted directly from high school to the D-League, Williams' rights belonged solely to the 66ers and Thunder for the season; unlike any other player acquired in the D-League draft, Williams could not be called up by any of the other 29 NBA teams. Once the season was over and the NBA Draft came, Williams was fair game.
So the Thunder used those seven months to integrate Williams into the system, both in what is expected on the court as well as off it. It also served as a rare evaluation period, as members of the basketball operations staff made dozens of visits to Tulsa throughout the season to monitor Williams' development.
That's why the Thunder went out and acquired Williams on draft day.
"That synergy is important to our overall development program now and in the future," Presti said. "Latavious was someone that we felt really benefited from his time in Tulsa and we wanted to extend our work with him, allowing him and us to continue to build on the foundation that was established this past season."
In some ways, Williams has an advantage over his fellow incoming rookies because the Thunder and 66ers share the same playbook, terminology and practice routines. Williams went through it every day for nearly seven months.
And to think that back in October, 66ers Head Coach Nate Tibbetts can recall Williams as a wet-behind-the-ears rookie who was getting a crash course on a professional playbook and experiencing a certain kind of freedom away from the court for the first time in his young life.
Tibbetts gave a lot of credit to forward Marcus Lewis, who took Williams under his wing as both a teammate and roommate, teaching him everything from how to cook to how to set a proper screen.
"The biggest thing was his growth as a person," Tibbetts said of Williams. "I think when we first got him last November he was a really quiet, young, unconfident kid. Now he's a guy who believes in what he's doing and kind of has a goal in mind and we're starting to see his personality a little bit, whereas before he was just a quiet kid."
Everything happened at warp speed for Williams, who Tibbetts said had a deer-in-headlights look to him every time the team integrated a new set from the playbook. It wasn't until the middle of the season that Williams started to figure it all out.
Tibbetts pointed to Thunder forward D.J. White's second stint with the 66ers as the turning point to Williams' season. By the time White joined the 66ers in early March, Williams had been playing big minutes in both a starting and reserve role. When White returned to the Thunder, Williams really began to excel on the court.
"I don't know if Latavious recognized it but after that I think he really stepped up his game," Tibbetts said. "Maybe (when White was in Tulsa) that was a time where everything was starting to happen really fast for him and it kind of gave him that opportunity to kind of sit back and look at everything, and hopefully that helped in his process of getting better."
Williams finished the season with nine double-doubles and 13 double-digit rebounding games to go with averages of 7.7 points on 52.8 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds and 20.5 minutes per game. In seven playoff games, Williams raised his averages to 11.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 61.2 percent shooting, mostly in a reserve role.
Tibbetts said that a day didn't go by without him and Williams talking about the NBA Draft; Tibbetts said it was a daily motivation for Williams. Really, this whole season was a continuous preparation for the NBA Draft, affording him an up-close and personal experience with an NBA franchise that neither college nor the international route could provide.
Now back where he started, Williams has a spot on the Thunder's Orlando Summer League roster.
"I think the biggest thing is getting him here and seeing how hard Serge Ibaka works and how hard D.J. White works, just seeing that same approach," Tibbetts said. "You can tell a guy as much as you want but until he's actually seeing somebody else doing it, someone he looks up to a little bit, that will really have an effect on him, I think."
But in terms of the next step in Williams' development, Presti said: "The next step is not skipping steps in our mind. Although we drafted him, the purpose and urgency does not change. We have to continue to keep the focus on getting better each day, not getting too far ahead of ourselves and allowing him to grow and develop at a pace that is created by his focus and time spent."
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