The NBA playoffs begin this weekend, which means — hallelujah! — the “real season” is only hours away.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who racked up a league-best 61-21 record in the regular season, have one of the most gifted all-around players (LeBron James) in the game’s history, a future first-ballot Hall of Fame center (Shaquille O’Neal) and a strong cast of role players. This includes lithe 206-cm forward Jawad Williams, who paid his dues in far-flung outposts in Spain, Israel and the NBA Development League, as well as a successful stint with the JBL’s Rera Kamuy Hokkaido in 2007-08 before finally securing a regular paycheck from the Cavs this season.
Williams played in 54 games and averaged 13.7 minutes per game with a modest 4.1 points-per-game average and 1.5 rebounds per game this season. He scored a season-high 17 points on Feb. 9 against the atrocious New Jersey Nets and also filled in as a starter in six games to spell James and other Cavs regulars when called upon to do so by coach Mike Brown.
Statistics matter, of course, but a job in the world’s best basketball league means much more to Williams.
For the easy-going Williams, life is good these days, playing for his hometown team in a season filled with countless highlights.
“I feel like everything’s going great,” Williams said during a recent phone conversation. “I couldn’t ask for a better situation right now, playing for my team in my home state.”
With the season winding down, Williams was asked to assess the way the Cavs have played. It came as no surprise that his answer was upbeat and positive.
“I think we are where we should be right now,” were the words he chose to describe the situation.
Up next: The Cavs face the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs. Williams is ready for the challenge.
“This team is built for the championship,” he said. “All we have to do is continue to work hard and compete.”
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Williams capped a four-year collegiate career at the University of North Carolina with a title in 2005, averaging 13.1 ppg for Roy Williams’ squad, which also included future NBA players Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, David Noel and Marvin Williams. He scored 13 points in the NCAA championship game against Illinois, knocking down three 3-pointers in process.
And then he went unpicked in the 2005 NBA Draft. For some players, that fact might have signaled the end of their careers. But for Williams it gave him greater motivation to compete.
“We have a never-give-up attitude in my family,” Williams told me. “One thing my parents instilled in me is the attitude that I’ll go as hard as I can and hope for the best outcome.
“Patience is a virtue in this game because nothing is guaranteed,” he continued. “When you do have that one chance, you have to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity.”
For Williams, that meant starting his professional career with the Fayetteville Patriots of the NBADL in 2005, and moving on to the D-League’s Anaheim Arsenal the following season, where he made 49 starts in 50 games and averaged 19.2 points and 4.6 rebounds and rounding out the busy season with a 19-game stint with Alta Gestion Fuenlabrada Madrid of the Spanish League.
Williams accepted an offer to come to Japan for the 2007-08, and made the most of the opportunity while playing for the Hokkaido-based club. In 35 games, he averaged 24.7 points and 7.1 rebounds, statistics he acknowledged were indicative of his growth as a player.
“I expanded my game,” he said, “and I think that’s what brought me back to the NBA.”
A quick primer: Williams played for the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2006-07 preseason (four games). His time with the perpetually bad franchise, however, didn’t carry over into the regular season, and so his familial advice kept him inspired to stick with his plan: to keep pursuing his lifelong goal.
Overseas opportunities with the aforementioned clubs, and Hapoel Galil Elyon of the Israel Premier League (10 games after Rera Kamuy’s 2007-08 season), gave Williams the necessary workload he desired and the time to hone his skills. Then he returned to the United States and joined the Cavs’ summer team squad in July 2008.
That move paid off. Williams earned an invitation to Cleveland’s training camp in the fall of 2008, and made the team’s roster to begin the season.
His patience was tested, though, when the Cavs waived him on Jan. 7, 2009. But, as you know by now, it didn’t signal the end of his time in Cleveland; he was signed to a pair of 10-day contracts last season, followed by a short stint with the NBADL’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The Cavs re-signed him to a contract for the remainder of the season on April 8.
For Williams, this has been his first full NBA season, and he cherishes the experience.
“I am very well-traveled,” the 27-year-old said. “It took me a long time to be where I’m at right now. It’s a blessing to be where I’m at. I can’t complain at all.”
Reflecting on his time with Rera Kamuy, Williams summed up the experience as a “great time” and said his teammates and the nation as a whole treated him generously. He expressed pride in his performance on the court, too, pointing to his nearly 25 ppg as an example of his creed to “try to fill out the stat sheet in every category.”
Williams developed a positive impression of the JBL for being organized and for its well-mannered fans and said several of the league’s top Japanese players, including Rera Kamuy guards Takehiko Orimo and Ryota Sakurai, deserve the public’s admiration.
“Those guys were real talented and overlooked,” said Williams, whose mother Gail played college ball at Cleveland State and sister Na’Sheema suited up at power forward for Vanderbilt University and in the defunct ABL. “As time goes on, people will see there are very talented players there, like (Yuta) Tabuse.”
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Williams’ basketball pedigree won’t be fully chronicled in this story. It will be noted, however, that he first dunked a basketball while playing in an AAU tournament as a seventh-grader. A story on cavs.com notes that after that game he received his first autograph request.
Call it an unforgettable moment. Or as he recalled: “It felt good. It was seventh grade. Not too many guys were doing that then.”
More than a decade later, Williams is entering his prime as a basketball player. His physical skills are still developing, but his mental makeup as an athlete has already revealed its signature trait.
Matt Doherty, Williams’ first coach at UNC, said perseverance has paid off for Williams.
“The tough thing at North Carolina is everyone expects to be drafted. The thing I was really proud of is that Jawad stuck it out,” Doherty, who now coaches at Southern Methodist University, was quoted as saying in a Cleveland Plain-Dealer article in February. “He didn’t let if affect him. A lot of kids struggle with the emotional side of not getting drafted. He stuck it out, and now I see him on ‘SportsCenter.’ “
Does Williams feel lucky?
“I wouldn’t call it luck. I call it being blessed,” he said. “Things just happen to fall into your lap sometimes, but I worked hard to get to this point.”
Coach Brown, in his fifth season at the helm, isn’t one of the NBA’s most recognizable faces, but he commands respect from the Cavaliers players.
“He knows when to push us and when to back off,” said Williams.
Another thing Williams always anticipates is fierce competition in practice; he routinely guards King James. It’s a terrific measuring stick for any player looking to stay sharp on defense.
“He’s the toughest guy I have to guard on a daily basis,” Williams said bluntly, adding that it prepares him for difficult duels against guys like Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest and Kevin Durant.
For opponents, James creates headaches and nightmares. For Williams, he makes his job a joyful experience.
“He’s very unselfish,” Williams said of the Cleveland superstar. “He cares about everybody’s success and everyone around him and I think that’s what sets him apart from everybody around him.”