June 21, 2005
WINSTON-SALEM -- Wake Forest basketball coach Skip Prosser thought he had finished his work for this year's recruiting class long ago, preferring to do his shopping mainly while players such as Kevin Swinton, David Weaver and Harvey Hale were high school sophomores.
But Prosser suddenly found himself recruiting again for this class, all because of the NBA draft.
First, it was to fill a roster hole left by the early defection of sophomore point guard Chris Paul for the NBA. Prosser found and landed Shamaine Dukes, a 6-1 point guard from Cuthbert, Ga. Dukes is not considered an elite recruit, but Prosser likely will need him to play some minutes immediately.
Then it was on to a little bit of in-house recruiting for Prosser, as he helped bring Eric Williams back into the fold after Williams also decided to explore his options. Most observers felt all along that the big man would be back, but these days, you can never be too sure (remember Josh Powell?) about the decisions of young players.
Williams appeared to do exactly what he set out to accomplish. He got to match up against some top talent and receive feedback on his game from some of the country's top basketball minds. He also handled it the way you might have expected. Williams is one of the game's nicest guys, and he generally keeps his head on straight.
"I think he did things judiciously," Prosser said. "He was very organized in terms of his process, and he made sure he took care of things in the spring semester, academically, at Wake Forest where he had a choice, or a decision, to make -- to come back here and get his degree or not. He has set himself up to be back here for the second semester of summer school."
Williams' return immediately began speculation about a possible All-America senior season, about whether he will be the country's top returning big man, and about his NBA lottery potential in 2006. If Williams can repeat the magnitude of the improvements he made last summer, he'll be a lock to match the hype.
But if you look closely at Williams, as an elite college or NBA player, he still has a lot of question marks.
"He understands all the areas he has to improve, and I think he will work to do that," Prosser said. "I don't think there's one thing we can say he has to get better at. He's got to get better at all things."
Last season, Williams got better by being in better shape, improving his footwork and being more aggressive. But now he must make the more difficult improvements, the refinements to his game.
Defensively, he must become more of a force. He stopped fouling so much last year, and he was more active on the defensive glass. But Williams will have to be more mobile and more of a shotblocker. The Deacons needed him to be an intimidating help defender in the middle last season, and he couldn't fill that role. He's blocked 34 shots in 47 career ACC games.
On offense, Williams has yet to come up with any real moves. He has survived mainly on his ability to carve out space and muscle close to the basket. He's shown flashes of a jump hook, but very little else. He hasn't been able to shoot jumpers facing the basket at all, and his dribbles are often disasters into traffic.
His mother, Debra, recently said that Williams is making great strides, thanks to his summer workouts.
"The kid you saw in March will not be the same kid you will see when basketball season starts," Debra Williams said. "He learned a lot. He's got a lot of confidence. He pulled away from the basket in his individual workouts, and his shots went in."
Big Factors: Confidence, Shooters
The confidence factor is bigger than it sounds. Williams didn't really take off last year until he started to believe he could be a dominant player, and not just some other good player on the court. When his attitude changed, his play changed dramatically. He rolled off nine double-doubles, with all of them coming after Jan. 2.
But why is it important for Williams to improve offensively, other than for NBA scouts? Mainly because he may have to take greater advantage of fewer opportunities next season.
Examine what will be around the big man offensively. Gone are three of the team's top four three-point shooters in ACC play. Other than guard Justin Gray, the rest of the returnees hit a total of eight three-pointers in conference games last year. Hale, Dukes and/or redshirt freshman forward Cameron Stanley could help from the outside, but they're unknowns.
If Wake's shooters can't command respect, teams are much more likely to try to collapse on Williams and force him to pass from the double-team (not his strength) or force the Deacons to hit from the perimeter.
In addition, Wake's top three assist men in ACC play also are gone. Paul averaged an assist every 4.9 minutes played in conference games, with guard Taron Downey at one every 12.4 minutes and forward Jamaal Levy at one every 15.8 minutes. Swingman Trent Strickland is the top returnee at one every 18.7 minutes. Gray, the new point guard, was at one every 20 minutes, only slightly better than forward Chris Ellis (20.3).
For his career, Gray has 10 more turnovers than assists in ACC play, and he has never had a year with more assists than turnovers. Strickland has 20 more turnovers than assists and only 33 assists in 47 career ACC games.
So will Williams be able to get the ball? The Deacons often struggled to make that happen over the last two years, even with Paul and Downey on the team. Now, Gray is a notoriously bad post passer, and again, Hale, Dukes and Stanley are unknowns.
Still, Wake obviously is much better off with Williams than without him. In addition to his talent, he's a great team guy. Everybody enjoys being around him, and he's a hard worker. That work ethic is being fed by his own talk about becoming the ACC player of the year.
"When he was working in the pre-draft camp, he got hungry for his senior year," Debra Williams said. "He got hungry to come back."
The word hungry used to have completely different connotations around Williams, who arrived at Wake carrying about 330 pounds. Now it might represent the driving force behind his goal of developing from a good player into an elite one.