Two years ago, Deron came to the University of Illinois as the "other" guard in the Class of 2002, but by the end of the 2003-2004 season, Deron was no longer the "other" guard. He is Illinois' best basketball player. Last season Illinois fans saw a more aggressive basketball player than the one that suited up for the Illini as a freshman. Williams was no longer tentative on the offensive end of the court. Instead of just looking to get the ball to Brian Cook (which was his job during his freshman year), Deron looked for his own offense and ways to create opportunities for his teammates.
Deron's season was cut in half thanks to a hard pick during Illinois' game against Maryland Eastern Shore that forced Williams to the sidelines with a broken jaw. Deron came back from his injury rather quickly, and played his first few games with his jaw still wired shut. Deron's first game back was when Illinois took on Illinois State in Assembly Hall. Without his 20 points, the Illini most likely would have been an upset victim against their in state rival.
Despite winning the Big Ten regular season Championship outright for the first time since 1952, Deron Williams was the only Illinois player honored with an All-Big Ten First Team selection. Deron's play was key in Illinois' run to the Big Ten Championship. In the game that was probably the defining moment of the Illini's season; Illinois' win at Indiana, Deron was the Illini's main offense in the final minutes and his defense was key in shutting down Indiana's Bracey Wright as the Fighting Illini clawed back to defeat the Hoosiers. That victory gave the then struggling Fighting Illini a confidence and swagger that carried through the rest of the Big Ten season, and brought the Big Ten Championship to Champaign for the third time in the last four years.
By the end of the season, Deron had matured into a scoring point guard, and I stress the point guard. Even with Dee Brown keying the Illini in the open court and the rare secondary break, Deron was the calming factor in the half court. He was one of the first players to take a solid fundamental grasp on the nuances of Bruce Weber's offensive system. Because of this he became a teacher on the court, the lead by example player the Illini needed.
The biggest asset Deron Williams brings to the floor is his ability to run a team. In the half court, Deron is the player directing his teammates to the correct place and initiating the offense. If the Illini's offense stalls before the shot clock expires, Deron recognizes the hiccup and goes to get the ball and reset the offense.
Throughout Big Ten Conference play, especially in the Indiana game and the succeeding games when Illinois needed a basket, Deron would set up the two-man game with him and one of the Illini's big men. When run successfully, this play led to an easy basket for Deron or the big man. Hopefully, the Illini will run more of these "sets" next season because of the simple nature of the play, yet the difficulty to defend it when it is properly executed.
- I would be remiss in this section if I were to not mention Deron Williams' court vision. In the half court, if there is a hole the size of a basketball that Deron can use to get his teammate an open shot, the ball will be passed to his waiting teammate. Last season Deron's vision improved in the full court, especially in finding the trailer on the break for the open three pointer, or as they were slashing towards the basket.
During his freshman season, Deron's main job was to pass the ball to Brian Cook. This full year of post passing made Deron a great passer into the post. When Brian left Illinois, the Fighting Illini lost their major post presence, the interior player who knew how to set up his defender.
A big problem with the inside game this year, besides fewer post entries, was the lack of an inside player that would get post position. If a post player provided Deron a target, the ball would end up in the post. Last year Deron did not pass the ball into the post as much, but he still showed he was the best post feeder of the Illinois guards; he just needs to do it more.
- Deron Williams has been the Illini's defensive stopper during both of his years in Champaign. If there was a opposing guard Illinois needed to shut down to win the game, Deron drew the assignment. There were times Bruce Weber would rest Deron on defense because he was so important to the Illinois offense by having him guard a less important player. But, if there was an important possession and the Illini needed a key stop, Deron was placed right back on that player.
- Sure, Deron led Illinois in scoring last season, but I still think his confidence on offense is one of his biggest weaknesses. Deron can break down his defender and get to the basket almost any time he wants, but it seems like he is often too reluctant to do so. If Illinois needs a basket, as the point guard, Deron needs to be aggressive and try to score.
- The easiest thing for a guard to do when the offense breaks down is to shoot a three pointer. If you watch any tapes from last season, it was blatantly obvious when the Illini offense broke down because Deron Williams was pulling up. It was not just Deron; all of Illinois' guards fell in love with the three point basket. The problem is not that Deron could not shoot the three; it was that he should be taking the ball to the basket in that situation to jump start the Illinois offense from the free throw line.
During his freshman year, Deron was the Big Ten leader in assist to turnover ratio, something unheard of for a freshman. Last year, Deron had many more turnovers than he had the previous season. (He still finished with a 2.5 assist to turnover ratio).
It was shocking to see Deron making dribbling mistakes in the half court, throwing bad passes, and being in general careless with the ball because of the success he had holding onto the basketball during his freshman season. It seemed like the more the Illini offense leaned on him, the more he tried to do, and the more careless he became with the ball. Sure he did not average a lot of turnovers, but the increase from years one to two was shocking, and something I hope will correct itself as he gets more confident with the offense.
Unfortunately for Illinois fans, I think you should watch Deron Williams closely next year because it will probably be your last chance to catch Deron in the Orange & Blue. If Deron's season mimics the season he had just last year, many people will expect him to place his name in the NBA Draft. As anyone that follows Illinois basketball closely and reads the Champaign News Gazette knows, NBA Scouts have been watching Deron when they visit Champaign since he stepped on campus. His exposure during the summers playing for the USA Basketball team has also helped him keep his name in front of the scouts. So, while I do not want to see Deron leave before his senior season, I think we should all be prepared to only see number five for just one more season in Champaign.
With Devin Harris leaving Wisconsin and entering the NBA Draft, Deron will be right at the top of the list along with Michigan State's Paul Davis on the lists for Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year. It is amazing the difference a year makes. Last year Deron's backcourt partner Dee Brown was the Preseason POY and had all the pressure on him in the Illinois backcourt, now Deron will have all the national attention and pressure. Can Deron handle the pressure that will be placed upon him by Fighting Illini fans that are clamoring for their first return to the Final Four since 1989?
Heading into next season there are two things I want to see Deron Williams do more: (1) drive to the basket and (2) feed the post. With the improvement in Deron's free throw shooting in last season, Deron should be using the dribble to get to the basket, and thus the free throw line. I hope to see Deron shooting far fewer threes this season because he is more confident in his ability to take the ball to the basket. Another thing that will free up the Illini guards to score more is if the Illini can create an offensive post presence. To do this Deron and Dee need to feed the ball into the post, and unlike last season when the Illini worked outside in, they need to work inside out.