Through the Trifocals

Illini coach Bruce Weber is in the market for a point guard to recruit for future teams. Illinisports believes there is no better example of a point guard than Deron Williams and hopes the Illini can be lucky enough to find another one of comparable ability.

Coach Bruce Weber and his assistants are scouring the countryside looking for point guards. We will soon need to replace Deron Williams and Dee Brown, so no stone will be left unturned in a never-ending search for talent.

Many fans will insist we recruit only players listed among the top 25-50 players in the country, and Weber will certainly try to oblige them. But perhaps we should examine the characteristics needed to be a top point guard at the Big 10 level in order to understand better Weber's recruiting. In the long run, the players best suited to our system and our needs may not always be ranked among the elite players in the country. We need look no further than our own Deron Williams as an example of this phenomenon.

Deron was among the top 40-75 players in some listings of recruiting experts when he was a senior in high school, but not all gurus listed him even this high. He was considered only the second most recruitable player on his team (Indiana's Bracey Wright was listed more prominently) despite being named team and league MVP. And yet, word out from some NBA scouts is that Deron may be the second best point guard available for entry into this year's pro draft.

I remember reading Deron's mother's posts on Illiniboard when he was being recruited and how she was saddened that more people didn't realize how good her son really was. Unlike some mothers who are blinded to their childrens' imperfections, Denise spoke eloquently and accurately about her son's plight. Her son was not getting sufficient credit for his true abilities, and she was right to complain. Deron was at least partly responsible for Bracey Wright's success but received little recognition for it. Now we know what she meant: Deron has to be watched closely to be understood.

Deron's special abilities are not entirely quantifiable. We can study statistics forever and never truly appreciate what he means to the Illini team because there is no statistic that fits. Self-proclaimed recruiting authorities use statistics and a "wow" factor to base their rankings rather than intangible qualities, but it is the latter that Deron has in abundance.

Deron's scoring average will not compare favorably with Bracey or a number of other players. He doesn't even focus on his shot until he sizes up the defense and makes a split decision either to pass or shoot. So his shooting percentage will never be as sharp as the most elite shooters. His assists per game average has led the Big 10 each of his first three years at Illinois, but that plus his tremendous assist-to-turnover ratio impresses fewer people than scoring. And while Deron can run and jump, he doesn't showboat or flash the kind of supreme athleticism that would induce the gurus into drooling over his college and pro potential. Deron just wins.

Even now, when the Illini have clearly labeled themselves as the number one seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament, Deron Williams is still not appreciated fully for his special skills. He did share 1st team All-Big 10 honors with teammates Dee Brown and Luther Head, but Dee was named 1st team All-American and Luther 2nd team All-American by one reporting service. At least, the NBA coaches and talent scouts who truly want to win (this excludes some of them) have a clearer eye for what Deron brings to the table and rank him higher than either Dee or Luther.

Let's examine Deron with an eye toward replacing him in future Illini lineups. Deron is smart. He understands basketball. He sizes up situations quickly and has answers for most of them. He would probably make a good coach some day because he recognizes the interplay between all five players simultaneously and knows how to gain mismatches and exploit them. He also studies film of opponents' tendencies to understand them and defeat them. A true point guard is a leader and coach on the floor, and Deron is that.

On defense, Deron is a master of filling the passing lanes, anticipating and blocking the preferred routes of his opponent, and generally disrupting play. He doesn't get the steals of long-armed Illini like Bruce Douglas or the super speedy Dee Brown, but he is among the best guard defenders we have ever had. He is quick enough to stay with quick opponents, and he has the physical size to counteract larger opponents. He makes his opponents work hard for their points, and he wears them down to the point they become less effective. A true point guard must be a solid on-the-ball defender, and Deron is that.

Many college coaches, and certainly most talent evaluators, prefer a point guard who is a prime scorer in the offense. I personally like Coach Weber's ball-sharing motion style better than that because it is more diverse and thus harder to defend, and Deron Williams fits into that style quite well.

Former Illini Frank Williams was a great point guard when he was on his game, and we relied extensively on him to take the big pressurized shot when one was needed. His last-second banked layup at Minnesota to win the Big 10 Championship his junior year was a prime example of how Frank loved to have the ball in his hands at those times.

But when you rely solely on the point guard to create on his own and make the game-deciding shot, the other players tend to watch rather than participate. Even if they are not disturbed at the lack of personal involvement, they are relying so much on someone else they become less aggressive toward helping the team win.

A point guard who thinks shot first looks great when the shot succeeds, but he must make a last-second pass if he cannot get his shot off. His teammates must be working to find an open spot to receive that pass if it is necessary. They must trust him to consider them as equals in the offense. If that point guard is selfish and uncaring, the other players will not trust him enough to cooperate fully and errant passes will result.

Deron is not a point guard who thinks shot first, so he is trusted by his teammates to get them the ball if they work to get open. Even in those last-second situations, the whole team is working together to find the one best shot to win the game. That is because they know Deron is aware of their presence, who is guarding whom, how much time is left on the clock, and what is needed to win.

But even though he is not a high scorer, there is no player on the team I would rather have shoot the ball at the last second than Deron Williams. And I believe all Illini players concur. Why? Because Deron is conscious even under the most pressurized circumstances. If he must shoot the shot, he will do so because it was the best situation he could create for the team, and he will be relaxed and balanced when doing so. He does not let fear or selfishness blind him to his awareness of the bigger picture, the grand dance of ten human beings flowing back and forth on a basketball court.

He doesn't just put his head down and barge in. Rather, he keeps his head up and his eyes open, looking for the open man even at the last possible moment. One play in our Big 10 Tournament game with Minnesota was a perfect example of this. Time was running out on the shot clock, and Deron started to create for his own shot. When the 18 footer was guarded, he penetrated one way, reversed to the other way, and found an opening for an 8 foot shot with 2 seconds remaining. He remained patient and kept working until he found an open situation. He was just as likely to scoop the ball off to a teammate even closer to the basket, and this knowledge kept the Gophers from doubling up on him.

If you watch Deron closely, he is thinking at all times. You can almost see the wheels turning as he manipulates opponents into defensive mistakes so he can whip a pass to a suddenly open teammate. He visualizes the play in his mind before carrying it out. Deron uses a variety of dribble moves and speed changes to gain a step on his defender, and if you watch closely you will see the subtle beauty of what he can do.

He doesn't make the flashy moves that garner style points among friends and some basketball talent evaluators. He doesn't display between the leg or behind the back dribbles just to get attention or show off. Rather, he uses them, plus a killer delayed crossover move to get his opponent off balance. All he needs is a slight opening, and he exploits it either to drive, shoot, or pass. He does what he needs to without going to extremes. And all the time while he is doing these things at top speed, he remains consciously aware of what he is doing. The man KNOWS.

Only the most confident, self-actualized individuals in any professional field are as aware as Deron Williams on a basketball court. It is no wonder why Bruce Weber worked incessantly in fall practices to challenge Deron in ways that could make him better and prevent boredom. Weber often forced Deron to play with the reserves to see if he could help them defeat the starters with his intelligence as well as ability. While Williams may have grown weary of the extra pressure, it undoubtedly helped him become even more conscious and more capable of responding under duress. A truly great point guard is conscious regardless of the situation. There is no finer example of this than Deron Williams.

So, how does Coach Weber find an adequate replacement for Deron Williams? It will be difficult at best. Weber has already made contact with a large number of prospects, and he continues to attend their games and evaluate their play. He should be forgiven if he doesn't spend all his time on just one or two top-rated players because it takes time to evaluate players for the subtleties of the game. Anyone can identify superstars. It takes special talent to recognize and appreciate those intangible qualities that Deron Williams uses to help us win. Hopefully, Weber is one of those people and will find an adequate replacement.

I issue this challenge to all prospective point guards, regardless of age. If you believe you are good enough to compare with Deron Williams, then Illinois wants you. But I suggest you study his game and continue working on yours, always looking for ways to improve your court awareness, communication skills, defense, handle, and unselfish desire to set up teammates. If you are also a good shooter, all the better.

But we play a team game at Illinois, and we need a true point guard to run it. You know, like Deron Williams.

Go Illini!!!


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