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NBA AM: Williams Proves Patience Is Key

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On Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns officially re-signed restricted free agent Alan Williams to a three-year deal worth $17 million, earning the big man his first-ever NBA payday. For the once-undrafted Williams, his journey took him halfway around the world and back before he got a chance to prove that he belonged in the league. The Suns’ commitment to Williams proves that sometimes all you need is a little luck and whole lot of hard work before those lifelong dreams can finally be realized.

In college, Williams played at UC Santa Barbara for four years, accomplishing a laundry list of broken records and award-winning campaigns. In fact, Williams is the school’s all-time leader in rebounds, an achievement that followed up his Big West Conference Player of the Year honors in 2013-14. During his junior and senior year seasons, Williams led the entire NCAA in rebounds per game. All in all, Williams’ collegiate career ended with a double-double average of 15.5 points and 10 rebounds, even adding 1.9 blocks and a steal per contest for good measure.

Still, the undersized Williams went undrafted in 2015 and he joined the summer league circuit in an attempt to latch on somewhere, anywhere. After playing for the Charlotte Hornets in Orlando and the Houston Rockets in Las Vegas – earning an All-NBA Summer League Second Team selection with the latter – Williams was still unsigned and nowhere closer to reaching his NBA goals. So, Williams turned to China and joined the Qingdao DoubleStar Eagles of the CBA, absolutely dominating the league to the tune of 20.8 points, 15.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks over his short-lived tenure of 35 games.

That overseas annihilation of China would lead to a 10-day deal with the Suns in March of 2016, an opportunity that eventually turned into a multi-year contract. Williams still flew under the radar for most of 2016-17, as the young talents of Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender often earned the few headlines on a poor 24-58 Suns team. Competing for minutes behind Tyson Chandler and Alex Len, Williams only played about 15 minutes per game for the Suns last season but managed to make the most of them by averaging 7.4 points and 6.2 rebounds.

This week, though, as his long and winding road finally reached its conclusion, the new-found security for Williams is something he’s never felt before.

“Unreal,” Williams said to Scott Bordow of AZCentral Sports. “To sign that piece of paper basically solidifies myself as an NBA player.”

Sculpted straight from the mold of an old-school athlete, Williams has certainly earned his place in the NBA for the immediate future. At the age of 24, Williams quickly developed an impressive feel for the professional level, using his strong motor to carry himself defensively against bigger competition. Offensively, his game around the rim has improved too, and Williams’ creative movements allow him to manufacture high percentage attempts without holding any immense athletic advantage.

Given his reputation as a strong rebounder and a worthy “energy” player, Williams had done enough to hang around last season, but his chance to prove that he permanently belonged would not come until late February.

Following the All-Star break, the Suns decided to commit more minutes to both Williams and Len prior to their big offseasons and, once they did, the former blossomed. Williams ripped off 12 double-doubles in the final 25 games of the season and likely earned his multi-million dollar deal based on that unleashed growth alone. Now with three of the five starting positions locked down – Booker, Chriss and rookie Josh Jackson – the Suns have been looking for their center of the future and they may have found a gem in Williams.

In that same piece by Bordow, general manager Ryan McDonough was quoted on Williams’ role on the court and in the locker room, reflecting on just how far he’s come since that initial 10-day contract.

“The thing that stands out to me, when you talk to the guys in the locker room and ask them who their favorite teammate is, who their favorite person in the locker room is, who has their back, who has great energy and belief and spirit when he’s not playing and when he gets on the court he plays his role very well and helps his team win,” McDonough said, “I think Alan is the guy that would get more votes . . . than maybe all the other guys combined.”

But with Chandler turning 35 years old before the season begins in October and Len’s status as a restricted free agent still very much up in the air, Williams has an opportunity to grab an even larger role in 2017-18. Out in the stacked Western Conference, the Suns are most likely headed for the lottery once again, but it’ll be an excellent chance for Williams to learn from the veteran center – who asked not to be traded last winter for that exact reason – and expand his game even further.

At just 6-foot-8, Williams must use his craftiness to compete with some of the game’s largest players, utilizing his soft touch in the paint to make up for that difference in size. Since joining the Suns, Williams has refined and mastered his quirky style in the post, often sneaking into small pockets of space for an easy layup or opting for a silky floater somewhere closer to the free throw line. Per 36 minutes, Williams averaged a whopping 4.8 offensive rebounds in 2016-17, a mark that would even make prime Dwight Howard blush.

Williams’ play isn’t flashy or idyllic, but it puts points on the board and awards his team plenty of second-chance opportunities – something all other 29 franchises would love to bring off the bench this upcoming season.

Even if Chandler returns for another full year, Williams’ role will most certainly expand after his impressive streak to finish off his first 82-game NBA season. But this type of eye-opening run isn’t new from Williams, it’s been here all along. From dominating Division I at UC Santa Barbara to leading the league in rebounds out in China, Williams has excelled in every situation he’s been in. Of course, per-36 numbers are rarely a 100 percent accurate translation of a player’s skills when those extra minutes finally do arrive, but for Williams, those predictions may be grounded in something wholly realistic.

For the tough-as-nails Williams, his skill set allows him to grab rebounds at an elite rate and convert a high percentage of his attempts since he rarely wanders outside of his sweet spots. So while the rest of the league obsesses over finding the next three-point shooting center, Williams is more than happy to fill his niche as a gritty, inventive player that would feel more at home in the physical era of the 1990s. But most importantly, Williams has been that guy for his entire career, both on this continent and on the other side of the planet, grinding it out in hopes of catching the eye of just one NBA franchise.

Now Alan Williams has $17 million examples to prove how his hard work has finally paid off.

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About Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.