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NBA AM: Marvin Williams and the 10-Year Degree

At 19, Marvin Williams became a multi-millionaire. Still, he worked for 10 years to get his degree at UNC.

Joel Brigham

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Jocks are typically portrayed as dumb. Movies and television shows have shown us that they detest school, pouring every last bit of their precious little brain capacity into jumpshots and touchdowns. There are plenty of jokes to be made about athletes who take seven years to get their bachelor’s degrees.

“Hey, a lot of people go to college for seven years,” says Chris Farley’s character in the ‘90s hit comedy Tommy Boy.

“I know,” replies David Spade’s Richard. “They’re called doctors.”

Charlotte Hornets forward Marvin Williams is not a doctor. He’s a jock, and he always has been. In 2004, the 18-year-old was a five-star high school recruit ranked 11th in the country. He was named to Washington’s All-State team and found himself on several All-American rosters, including the most prestigious one organized by McDonald’s. Naturally, he found his way to UNC, where in his first year he teamed up with studs like Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May en route to the 2005 NCAA National Championship.

That summer, after only one season playing college ball, Williams was made the No. 2 overall selection in the 2005 NBA Draft. Being drafted that high meant that the 19-year-old would bank around $10.5 million by the time the rest of his fellow UNC freshmen graduated college three years later. Most people that age would take eight figures’ worth of salary and kiss college goodbye forever.

Williams did not. He continued to pursue his degree.

“It took me 10 summers,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “I only had one year of academics under my belt when I left Chapel Hill [in 2005], so it literally took me 10 summers to finish.”

In other words, Williams started his summer courses in 2005 after declaring for the NBA Draft, was then the second overall selection in late June, and went ahead and finished up his coursework before beginning his rookie campaign in Atlanta.

“I didn’t waste any time,” he chuckled, remembering that hectic time in his life. “I know myself well enough to know that if I would have stepped away for just even a semester, it would have been more difficult to go back. So I just hung straight in there and kept going.”

For the next nine years after that first one, he took zero breaks. Not for vacation, not for rest. Every summer he’d go back to Chapel Hill, knock out a couple of classes and do his offseason workouts with the Tar Heels’ men’s basketball team while he educated himself.

“I took no summers off,” Williams said. “My first couple of years when I was in Atlanta, we weren’t making the playoffs and I was able to go to both sessions, which really helped a lot. When we started making the playoffs, I was only able to catch the second session, so depending on how the season went would depend on how many sessions I was able to do in the summer.”

There even were times when Williams would take classes while the NBA season was underway. Plenty of people pursue degrees while holding down a day job, and pro ball players actually have quite a bit more free time than most full-time workers.

“Sometimes when guys would watch movies or sleep on the plane, I was on the back of a plane knocking out a paper or something like that,” Williams said. “As an NBA player, you have a great deal of time. If you ask most guys, they’re usually playing video games anyway after practice. You know, I’d just take a little bit of time, like an hour a day or so, to finish some homework.”

The end result was a degree in African-American Studies from the University of North Carolina. He could have stopped at any point, like in 2009 when he signed a five-year, $37.5 million deal with the Hawks. That contract meant that by 2014, he would have made just shy of $50 million over the course of his career. Somebody with that sort of money doesn’t need to go to college, but it was a labor of pride for Williams more than anything else. For him, and his parents.

“My parents always stressed education growing up, so it was always a very big deal for me to finish college,” he said. “Schooling was always a very big deal in my house. You’re demanded to get good grades and feel like education was important. So instilling that in me earlier kind of made me want to finish my degree later. Honesty, my parents didn’t really worry about me finishing my degree because I think they both knew I was going to do it.”

The fact that Williams was able to stay in shape with a world-class university basketball program every summer made him a better basketball player, as well. Every year there are stories of players who come to camp out of shape and out of focus, but those stories never have been about Marvin Williams. He truly believes his summers in Chapel Hill have had a lot to do with his success in the league.

“Luckily for me, that’s where I trained,” he said. “I trained with the strength coach at UNC. Coach [Roy] Williams allowed me to use their facilities and use their doctors during the summer time and I even played with those guys.

“It was everything. For one, college kids are much more conditioned in the summer time than I would say professionals are. Those college guys are constantly training, they’re always running, and they’re always playing. Pros, after a long season, will take a month or so off to get their bodies back, but then they have to kind of get back in shape. It seems like those college kids are always in shape.”

Plus, having access to all of those facilities and UNC team staff in the summertime allowed him to have close contact to everything he’d need to maintain his focus for the season to come.

“The trainer there was great,” Williams said. “He taught me so much about being a professional—taking care of your body, eating the right foods, stretching, cold tubs—all the very basic things that I think a younger guy might miss because he didn’t go to college. If you come [into the NBA] at 19, maybe some of the younger guys don’t like the cold tub, some of the younger guys don’t stretch, or don’t take care of their bodies that way. Just being with him every single year, I can’t really express how much it’s done for my career.”

All of this, of course, isn’t necessarily common among today’s burgeoning one-and-done stars. More often than not, the top picks in the draft are young men who only attended one year of college, and only then because the NBA’s rules force them to. Williams has seen plenty of them come and go with little concern for their education, yet he tries to do his part to encourage them to get a degree despite their hefty bank accounts.

“Whether or not a young player goes back for his degree kind of depends on how long they were in school before getting drafted,” Williams explained. “If you leave after your freshman year, I don’t really see too many kids that are jumping straight back into it… So I’m going to push for younger guys to go back and get their degrees, no matter how much time they spent in college.”

Earning a degree isn’t as tough as some may think, particularly if one spreads it out over the course of three or four (or 10) years.

“As a 19-year-old freshman leaving college early, you don’t really understand the climb that you have, but it was not nearly as difficult as I thought it was going to be,” he said. “It did take a little bit of time, but I’m constantly encouraging younger guys, especially one-and-done guys, to take a couple classes here and there. It’s just so easy to hop on and do one or two things online, and if you’re heading back—you have four or five weeks during the summer just to get back on campus. It really is not that difficult.”

It will never stop being hard to persuade 19-year-old millionaires to go back to college, but Williams believes with every ounce of his being that an education is worth the struggle, even for the young and wealthy.

“A degree is everything,” he said. “I’ve always been very aware of basketball never lasting forever. I thought I wanted to coach. I don’t think I will anymore, but I still have that option. Having options is what brings a little bit of peace in knowing that I can do things that I want to do. A degree is only going to help me do those things.”

And if Williams, with almost $120 million in career earnings by the time his current contract runs its course, decides to do nothing with his degree, he’ll have earned that. He can play video games, too, if he wants, but more in the way that one has dessert after a square meal.

None of this makes him a doctor, but it does remove him from the “dumb jock” stereotype. For at least one athlete, 10 years of school isn’t a joke. Rather, it’s a testament to the sort of patience and drive that has kept Williams in the league for so long. Here’s hoping it rubs off on some of his younger colleagues.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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A Few Good Free Agents Left

David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.

David Yapkowitz

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The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.

A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.

For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.

David Lee

Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.

He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.

Deron Williams

Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.

Monta Ellis

Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.

He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.

Leandro Barbosa

The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.

He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.

Derrick Williams

The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.

During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.

With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year

Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.

Buddy Grizzard

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With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.

“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”

Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.

“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”

In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.

“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”

One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.

“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”

Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.

“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”

The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.

“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”

With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.

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NBA Opening Night Storylines

Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.

Dennis Chambers

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The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.

Rejoice, hoop heads.

Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.

With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.

As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)

This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.

Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.

And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.

The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.

But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.

While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.

By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.

Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.

Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.

Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.

And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.

Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.

This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?

Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.

Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.

While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.

Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?

After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.

“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”

It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.

That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.

Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.

With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.

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