March Madness

Jay Williams Talks March Madness, TV Career and More

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Few people are as qualified to talk about college basketball as former Duke guard Jay Williams.

After all, Williams starred for the Blue Devils and led them to a national championship in 2001, averaging 21.6 points, 6.1 assists and two steals. In the NCAA Tournament that year, he put up 25.7 points per game and became a household name.

In the 2001-02 season, he was the unanimous National Player of the Year, meaning he won every single Player of the Year award (Naismith, AP, Adolph Rupp, Wooden, Oscar Robertson and NABC). He was a first-team All-American twice and totaled 2,079 points in his three seasons at Duke.

Williams was arguably the most dominant college basketball player at that time, which is why the Chicago Bulls made him the second overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft (behind only Yao Ming).

Unfortunately, Williams suffered a horrific motorcycle accident in June of 2003, severing his leg’s main nerve, fracturing his pelvis and dislocating ligaments in his knee. Williams’ basketball career was never the same after his accident. He was waived by the Bulls and had a brief stint with the New Jersey Nets in 2006, but he was cut after one month.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at ArizonaFortunately for Williams, his incredible college career and likeable personality allowed him to make a seamless transition from professional athlete to television analyst. He started doing some basketball broadcasts for ESPN after his NBA career started to sputter, and now he is a full-time college basketball analyst for the network.

Basketball Insiders recently did a one-on-one interview with the 33-year-old Williams to discuss his post-basketball career, the 2015 NCAA Tournament, who should be the top pick in this year’s NBA Draft and much more.

Alex Kennedy: How much preparation and homework goes into being an analyst and how much do you enjoy that role?

Jay Williams: Well, I love it. It took some getting used to at the beginning, to be frank with you, because ESPN kind of throws you right into the mix. So first off, I had no idea what camera to look into. Secondly, I’ve never had to speak with somebody else speaking in my ear. You have your producer and you have an on-site camera guy to tell you what camera to speak into while your producer is giving you the layout of the stuff that is coming up next. And, by the way, we aren’t reading off a teleprompter so we have to be able to talk about 350+ Division I teams like the back of my hand and that was a challenging task.

There’s a lot of reading that goes into it on a daily basis to feel comfortable enough [to discuss every team] and know that you’re equipped with the knowledge. Sometimes, you don’t even use the knowledge unless it comes up in the conversation, but you have to know it. When you’re doing this, you always have to be engaged and listening to what the people around you are saying and then you have to add to the discussion. I can almost equate it to basketball: In your freshman year, the game is moving at 8,000 miles per hour, but then all of a sudden in your junior year, the game is moving at 10 miles per hour. That is where I feel like I am now as a broadcaster – the game is moving a lot slower and I can pinpoint where I want to get in and where I want to get out.

Kennedy: Do you want to remain an analyst long-term, or could you see yourself eventually moving into coaching or a front-office role? Do you have any interest in something like that down the road?

Williams: I’m not sure. I’m still relatively young in the game, I’m 33 years old, so I’m not going to sit here and say I’m definitely going to do this in 10 years. I mean, 12 years ago I would’ve thought I would’ve been in my 13th year in the NBA right now. Things changed and now I love what I do T.V. wise. I think a part of me really yearns to be a host, to move into that stratosphere of what Michael Strahan has been able to accomplish. But then again, who really knows what is in front of me?

Kennedy: You obviously played at Duke. What do you think of this squad and what do you think of their chances to win the national championship?

Williams: I think their chances are good. Jahlil Okafor cannot afford to get into foul trouble. Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson are serviceable – they’re really good – but they are not at the same caliber as Okafor. And Justise Winslow, Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones need to be playing at a high level. It takes great guard play to win the championship. They have played at a high level, but it needs to go up another notch now. This is a special team and they have a special coach. It’s been 12 Final Four appearances for Coach K. They have a chance to do something great again this year.

Quinn Cook is the unsung hero on this team. [He’s] a senior who has bided his time and waited for this year when this would be his team, and then they bring in another McDonald’s All-American, another guy who could potentially be a one-and-done guy, to run Quinn Cook’s position. But Quinn has opened his arms to Tyus Jones and wants to help him. It has been the best thing for Quinn too because it has made him better. With a lot of players, that situation might’ve created tension within a team. There, it has created an environment that’s conducive to winning because of Quinn Cook and how he handled it with open arms.

Kennedy: What are some of the things that you’ve learned from Mike Krzyzewski throughout your life, not only as a player but off the court too?

Williams: I learned that you can’t allow one thing to consume you to the point that it takes away from the next thing. I think a lot of people do this in their lives if they have a bad moment. Let’s say I had just done a bad interview before talking to you, for example. It didn’t go the way I wanted it to go and I take that interview [and negative feeling] into my interview with you. That’s not fair for you. You deserve more. You deserve me at my best. I think that’s something that I’ve learned from Coach K throughout my life. That if you have a bad moment, it’s okay and you can’t bring that bad moment into the next moment. He still does that as a coach too. If you ask him how he stays rejuvenated and [works so hard], he’ll say, “Because I owe it to these kids.”

Kennedy: If you were a general manager and you had the first pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, would you pick Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor?

Williams: It all depends on what you need and it depends on the system in which you play. If the Knicks were to get the first pick and Phil Jackson has made it clear that they want to run the triangle and you already have a pillar in Carmelo Anthony who is a legit wing, it makes sense to take Jahlil Okafor because he is a old school center. If you’re a team like Minnesota, then maybe it makes sense to take a versatile four-five like Karl-Anthony Towns. It all depends on what you like.

Kennedy: Which players have stood out to you in this tournament in terms of their individual play. It can be guys who have been eliminated or are still playing; I’m just curious who has impressed you the most.

Williams: R.J. Hunter from Georgia State, most definitely. I think he will be a first-round NBA draft pick. He is a prototypical two-guard. Justise Winslow from Duke, I think his stock has gone up tremendously toward the tail end of the year. I think Sam Dekker from Wisconsin has pushed himself into the lottery, and you can’t say that about a lot of players. He has shown the ability to knock down the three-ball consistently and he has shown a different mentality as well. Another player who really played well is D’Angelo Russell. That kid, as my partner in crime Stephen A. Smith would say, is a baaad boy.

Kennedy: You’re part of Dove Men+ Care’s “Real Strength Moments” campaign. Alonzo Mourning described it to me as redefining what “real strength” is. Rather than focusing on physical strength, he pointed out that real strength is about caring, nurturing, leading others, being strong emotionally and things like that. How would you describe it and why did you want to participate in it?

Williams: Well, I’m obviously a representative here at the Final Four. As it equates to my life, you talk about real strength and [people are] emotional throughout this time of the year. That is what the NCAA Tournament is all about. The connection between a player and a coach is a great example. I look at how these coaches are able to connect with these kids and that is what care is all about. Real strength is having that connection and having the confidence to be emotional. And what I mean by that is that you go through a whole range of emotions when you go through a tournament like this. I’ve gotten a chance to go through them all. From losing in the Sweet Sixteen in my freshman year in Florida and in my junior year in Indiana, to my sophomore year winning the championship and having the complete high of that situation after coming out on top. That made it all worth it – all of the effort, every suicide run, every after-practice meeting with coach. It was all for that moment.