McMenamin: From N.Y. to L.A., still with something to prove
“I gained my respect for Mike was when I first got to New York,” Williams told ESPNLosAngeles.com at Los Angeles Lakers training camp this week. “We had a meeting and he told me a couple things. I won’t put that out in the public, but he told me some things. He told me the truth. And I respect him for that.”
What did D’Antoni tell him? What do you say to a former first-round draft pick who had already been charged with possession of marijuana, possession of a stolen handgun, and in a separate incident, misdemeanor drug possession for allegedly selling a codeine substance?
What message did D’Antoni have for someone who had already worn out his welcome with both the Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks and became such a persona non grata that he was out of the league completely for the 2009-10 season before arriving in New York?
“I remember,” D’Antoni said. “I told him I didn’t want him. Because that’s what happens in this league sometimes, you get labels on guys. I didn’t know him, only what I read, what I saw, what I heard. So I’m thinking, ‘Why do we need to go down that path again?’ ”
The honesty was something Williams, a 6-foot-9 forward with deep range who had been relying more on talent than mental toughness, needed to hear.
It humbled him.
For the first 18 games of the 2010-11 season, Williams sat on the Knicks’ bench, racking up DNP after DNP. When he finally got a chance to play, New York went on an eight-game winning streak, with Williams making 15 of the 28 shots he put up during the tear.
“Eighteen games in, I got a shot to play and I ended up doing alright and I was playing ever since,” Williams said. “To me, I just feel like Mike’s system is a great system. He’s a great coach. He respects players. He knows how to coach players. And that’s basically it. That’s just my guy. I like him as a coach, a person. That’s just it.”
For D’Antoni, the feeling is mutual.
“When you get to know the guy, he’s nothing like the perception,” D’Antoni said. “He’s one of the most stand-up, nicest, coachable and skilled players that I’ve ever coached and I’m hoping. He’s been off a couple years, so that is what it is and he still has to fight perception, but he’s one of those guys that plays a lot better than people think.”
“Sometimes this league is a revolving door”
Williams’ lone season in New York with D’Antoni has proved to be the glory days of his career so far. Williams averaged 7.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in just 20.1 minutes per game that season, while shooting 40.1 percent on 3-pointers.
He signed with the then New Jersey Nets after the lockout and never found his niche, shooting just 28.6 percent from the field in 25 games. The Nets traded him to the Portland Trail Blazers at the end of the 2011-12 season. Portland bought out his contract for 2012-13. Williams was out of the league, again. And fell back into trouble, again. This time he was arrested for possession of both marijuana and codeine cough syrup.
It could have been over, but Williams wasn’t ready to give up. He left the rough streets of Memphis, where the arrest occurred, for the palatial confines of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., a sports training center, to work on his game. There was a long way to go until the next NBA season after his arrest in December and he was making good money still from the buyout from the Trail Blazers, but he didn’t want his NBA dream to die just yet.
“Sometimes this league is a revolving door,” Williams said. “You just got to keep your head up. Sometimes it don’t seem like it’s going nowhere, but you just got to keep your head up and just keep running and trucking and something is going to show.”
Meanwhile, D’Antoni was going through his own struggles with the Lakers. The coach had a roster full of injured players who weren’t necessarily suited to his preferred style of play, when they were healthy anyway.
A couple of months after the Lakers flamed out of the playoffs at the hands of a first-round sweep to the San Antonio Spurs, D’Antoni urged Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of player personnel Jim Buss to invite Williams to L.A. for a workout.
“You need guys that you can trust and you don’t have to worry about and you know he’s going to be there every day and he’s going to be one of those guys,” D’Antoni said.
Williams knew that he’s a tough sell on paper and appreciated his old coach sticking his neck out for him.
“It was a hard process,” Williams said. “Just telling the truth, coming in, I have a lot of little baggage. So, it was just kind of a tough process. But when you have people in your corner … I look at the NBA like family, and family got to look out for each other and keep everything going.”
D’Antoni put Williams on the Lakers’ radar, but he wasn’t just going to be given a No. 3 purple-and-gold uniform and told to start launching away from the outside. He had to earn it.
“I talked to Mike and I talked to Mitch and they gave me some goals to reach before I get to training camp, which was weight-wise, getting my weight down and stuff,” Williams said. “I told them I can do it and they told me they’d give me a shot.”
‘A pro’s pro’
D’Antoni said Williams looks as if he has lost 25 pounds since he first saw him work out this summer. Williams set the record straight, saying he weighed in at 250 pounds in his first official workout with the team, 246 in the second and 237.6 at the start of training camp. He was listed at 230 pounds when he played for the Knicks.
Williams gives all the credit to the program the Lakers’ trainers formulated for him, calling it “one of the best staffs I’ve done seen.”
Tim DiFrancesco, the Lakers’ strength and conditioning coach, gives the credit right back to Williams.
“Shawne, to me, he’s a pro’s pro,” DiFrancesco said. “That’s what I call him. Either the guy’s a pro, or he’s not. He understands his body is his weapon and he’s knows to get in here every day and take care of it as part of his job. So, Shawne’s one of those guys.”
DiFrancesco has monitored Williams’ transformation closely.
“We are able to track, based on the body-fat machine that we use, pounds of lean mass, pounds of muscle,” DiFrancesco said. “His lean mass is maintained and he’s lost all of that fat. All those pounds that he’s lost have come from fat. Non-usable, non-functional mass.”
Now that the fat has melted away, DiFrancesco’s challenge is to ramp Williams up slowly.
Because he was out of the league in 2012-13, Williams is kind of like a sports car that has been sitting in the garage all winter. You don’t just gun the engine when the snow melts off the road.
“It’s definitely a delicate process, because you can’t just throw a guy to the wolves and just all of the sudden go from zero [games] to 90,” DiFrancesco said. “Shawne understood that. Some guys want to go from sitting on their butt to, ‘Well, just try to make me puke from every workout from now on.’ But that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Rather, it has been a steady process and DiFrancesco has already seen the weight room work translate into on-court success.
“He’d get a breakaway and there were a couple instances where he had a hard time finishing,” DiFrancesco said. “A guy would catch up to him, even though he was ahead of the pack to start or, he would catch up to him and give him a little bit of legal contact and he would really lose his balance and not be able to take a hit and still finish. For his position, being able to get ahead of the pack and get to a spot where he can catch and shoot, that wasn’t happening as much in the beginning. Then I started to see, he’s absorbing contact, going through contact now. He’s finishing certain plays. He’s getting shots that he wasn’t even getting 4-5 weeks ago because he’s getting to his spots more efficiently, more effectively. The one thing we know for sure with Shawne that if he gets to his spot, he’s going to hit his shot, probably.
“So those are the things that I kind of look for and can see the tangible, face-to-face, real progress.”
Not to mention, shooters rely on confidence and nothing breeds confidence like looking good.
“When you start to drop non-functional, useless fat mass and you start to replace it with some functional, powerful, bullet-proof lean mass,” DiFrancesco said, “you walk out onto this court like, ‘Here we go! I’m feeling good!’ ”
‘I feel like everybody has a chance’
Williams has a veteran minimum’s contract with the Lakers this season, worth about $1 million, but only $100,000 of that is guaranteed. While it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him start some games at the stretch four and play alongside Pau Gasol in the front court this season, he still technically has to make the team.
The Lakers have 19 players in camp and will likely carry the full, maximum 15-man roster into the season. Williams and Elias Harris, who also has a partially guaranteed deal, would seem like favorites to join the 11 players who are already fully under contract, leaving the real battle between the likes of Xavier Henry, Marcus Landry, Ryan Kelly, Darius Johnson-Odom and Dan Gadzuric for the final two spots, but you never know.
Williams, who is still only 27 despite all he has been through, isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I feel like Mitch did a great job of bringing in a lot of good guys to compete to make the spot,” Williams said. “It’s only going to make us better. I feel like everybody has a chance. I’m really not thinking about it, I’m just trying to go through training camp, do what I do best and let that shake itself out.”
While the Lakers could certainly use a consistent outside stroke like Williams’ this season — L.A. ranked 19th in team 3-point percentage last season — D’Antoni says he thinks Williams brings more to the table than just shooting.
“One thing that’s overlooked, the guy’s 6-9,” D’Antoni said. “His wingspan, the only guy with a greater wingspan than him is Pau and it’s only by an inch and a half, and Pau’s 7-2. Compare him to like Jordan Hill, for example, he has a two-inch (longer) wingspan and that’s very important.”
It’s important because Williams’ length can lead to deflections, steals, blocks and rebounds on defense, which is a category the Lakers have to improve on as a team even more than they do on their accuracy from beyond the arc. It’s fitting, too, because Williams says D’Antoni is different than the guy he was with in New York.
“I’ve done noticed some stuff about Mike too a little bit,” Williams said. “It seems like he’s harping a little bit more on defense now. He’s spending more time on defense. It used to just be a lot of offense and he used to try to tell us, ‘Defense comes from within,’ but now, everything starts with defense and then we let that dictate the offense.”
‘He knows we’re in it together’
Coach and player are back together again. From Broadway and the Big Apple, to the bright lights of Hollywood, they’re still linked by a bouncing ball. And they both have plenty of motivation to make up for the past.
“I feel like his spirit is great,” Williams said. “Mike is the type of guy for me, he knows we’re in it together. So, his spirit is always going to be high as a coach, as a leader. He don’t harp on a lot of stuff. He tries to stay positive through losses and wins. That’s what I can recall from him in New York.
“The way I’ve been seeing it, he’s been positive. He’s been kind of amped and hyped and he’s just been doing a lot of defense. That’s the most shocking thing about it. He’s doing a lot of defense. That’s good. That just shows me that he’s thinking ahead and working on everything.”
Just like Williams is working on his body, his game, his life, little by little.
“He’s a tough guy,” D’Antoni said. “I’ll walk down an alley with him at night and I’ll be fine. Now, he won’t get much help from me, but I’m sure I’ll get a lot of help from him.”
The thing about that is, D’Antoni has already helped Williams in so many ways.