CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While not getting near the attention Brandon Jennings received a year ago, Latavious Williams also has a chance to become a trailblazer of sorts if his name is called in Thursday’s NBA draft.
Jennings went straight from high school to Europe to starring with the Milwaukee Bucks. Williams, a projected second-round pick, could be the first player to skip college and play a year in the NBA Development League before being drafted into the NBA.
If he’s successful, Williams could start a trend of players who decide to stay in the United States and play minor-league basketball directly out of high school.
“I got a lot of experience out of that,” Williams said of his season with the Tulsa 66ers after a recent pre-draft workout in Charlotte. “You don’t need to go to school or nothing. You just back and forth from home to the gym. The gym was like 3 minutes away, so you can always go to the gym and get work. In college, you can’t do that.”
The NBA-NCAA relationship has always been tricky. Rules have been adjusted over the years, the most recent banning players from going directly from high school to the NBA. While it has given colleges star players for at least one season, it has left players who don’t have the test scores, grades or interest in college searching for options.
Jennings bolted to Europe. Although he did little in a season in Italy, he was the 10th overall pick and had a stellar rookie season with the Bucks.
The 6-foot-8 Williams, who played in high school in Starkville, where he was the 2008 NEMS Daily Journal Player of the Year, and Texas, originally planned to play at Memphis but didn’t qualify academically. His mother then squashed plans to play in Europe, where the pay is usually higher than the D-League.
“My mom didn’t want me to go that far,” he said.
So he became a test study for the decade-old D-League, which league president Dan Reed said has produced 20 percent of today’s NBA players.
Williams averaged 7.7 points and 7.7 rebounds in 20 minutes a game for Tulsa but came on strong late in the season. He averaged 11.3 points and 8.0 rebounds in the playoffs.
“I think when you consider the majority of our players were all-conference or better in college and he’s playing with NBA rules in front of NBA scouts every night, he learned a lot in a very short period of time,” Reed said. “You saw that on the court, and that’s why he’s been talked about as a draft prospect.”
Reed touted that because the D-League plays a 50-game schedule, Williams played as much as somebody in college who averaged 37 minutes a game in a shorter season. Reed said they also provided life skills, media and other training to Williams during the season.
So, should more players should skip college and play a season in the D-League?
“I’m for college,” said Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown, the only coach to win NBA and NCAA titles. “But with the way the rules are now, if a kid doesn’t have interest in college and thinks he can better himself going to the D-League, I’m not in a position to tell them (not to).”
ESPN draft analyst Jay Bilas said he believes the D-League provides a healthy option for certain players.
“It’s not a question of what’s right or what’s wrong, it’s what’s best for each individual,” he said. “For Latavious, this was a legit option, and he’s done well.”
Williams is not the only player who hopes to be drafted after playing last season in the D-League. Jeremy Wise, who played three seasons at Southern Mississippi before leaving school, spent an uneasy week with a pro team in Turkey where he said the culture shock led him to “get away from there.”
He came home and averaged 16.6 points last season for Bakersfield.
“I had outgrown Southern Miss,” Wise said. “I decided to turn pro, took my name out of the draft. Got some good feedback, said I needed to work on my point guard skills and get stronger. That’s what I did in the D-League. It was a good process.”
But the 6-1 Wise had already declared for the draft twice and is 24. Williams is just 21, and still faces a difficult path to the NBA.
Although Jennings earned a guaranteed contract by being taken in the first round, Williams is considered a second-round pick at best, which likely means no guaranteed money. He’ll likely have to play on a summer league team and impress in training camp to make an NBA roster.
“I made the right choice,” Williams insisted. “You can always go back to school. I went to the D-League and just learned.”
The Associated Press