During the loudest and most hyped offseason in NBA history, Jazz point guard Deron Williams maintained absolute silence. No private whining or public threats. No elaborate televised platform to discuss his desires, or veiled references relayed through mysterious sources and then published on the Internet about his need for change and longing to leave.
Highly polished stars such as LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony stood on the mountaintop they spent years climbing and then preached loudly.
Williams? He stayed quiet and polished his game.
But just because the 6-foot-3, 209-pound former Illinois standout kept his lips sealed does not mean it is status quo in Salt Lake City. The departures of Carlos Boozer, Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver forced Utah to add veteran depth and rely on unproven youth at the same time. And while the addition of Al Jefferson could soon create a name that will rival Boozer's in Williams' pick-and-roll legacy, the All-Star guard who serves as the indisputable face of a small-market franchise is about to embark on the second stage of his promising but still-to-be-determined career.
"It's going to be a different team for us this year," Williams, 26, said. "Things aren't going to come as easy as they have in the past. It's part of my job to keep the team together and keep the team focused."
The leader • Focus, togetherness, job: all code words for leadership. Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said Williams unquestionably has it, as do key longtime teammates such as Paul Millsap and Ronnie Price.
"We've both been the same person since we got in here. I guess that's why we clicked so much, because we are who we are," Millsap said. "We don't try to put on a front. We're pretty real to each other."
Sloan said Williams' authenticity is a central piece to his puzzle. Utah's coach believes that anyone in the league can lead. But for every head-bashing, foul-mouthed screamer who captures the heart and soul of their team, there is an equally valued frontman who conquers the void with silence. Thus, the only thing that truly matters about being a leader is the one thing that brings out the best: winning.
"I think he's made a lot of strides from where he started," Sloan said. "The experience that he has, knowledge, all that stuff he's a terrific player. I think the experiences that you have over the years puts you in a position to be able to do those things; to be a leader; have the responsibility to get other players to play better. That's the bottom line. That's what leadership's about."
However, while his coaches and teammates support him, and the city that he represents largely worships him, Williams is still something of an unknown six years into his NBA life. Many believe he has eclipsed Chris Paul to become the premier on-the-court quarterback in the game. But a lack of national and worldwide star power means that names such as Paul, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose often eclipse the Jazzman's when fan-driven conversation turns toward the best point guard in the NBA. In addition, Williams' private personality, reserved public demeanor and, at times, confrontational relationship with the local media can create question marks where there should be easy answers.
"Everything's a process," Millsap said. "Everybody don't come in just knowing everything. So he's been listening. He's been able to get guys around him, as far as coaches and players, throughout the years. Deron's been working hard to get where he's at."
The goal • On the court, there is no doubt Williams has arrived. The two-time All-NBA second-team selection ranks fourth in team history in assists and sixth in three-pointers made and attempted. Resilient, tough-minded and steadfast, he has played in an average of 77.2 regular-season contests since entering the league in 2005-06, leading Utah to four consecutive playoff appearances. And while a gold medal during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and one of the best all-around games in the league rank highest among his superlatives, Williams' killer touch in the clutch has long made him a favorite of NBA fiends.
"I think he's at that point where it would appear â¦ that he's that guy and he's comfortable being that guy," Phoenix forward Grant Hill said. "Because they certainly need that from him. He's their best player."
But is Williams truly the best lead man for the future of the organization one that has begun to consult him when planning long-term strategic moves? Can a star who has never averaged more than 19.4 points in a single season take the Jazz to the promised land, doing what living legends John Stockton and Karl Malone could not? And when Williams' contract expires in 2011-12 he holds a player option worth $17.7 million in 2012-13 will the land of magic mountains and elevated air be enough to contain a player who sometimes exudes small town but always plays big city?
"I don't care how many All-Star appearances or All-NBA teams [I make], I just want to win," Williams said. "I want to win multiple championships. But I want to win a championship first and foremost."
Right now, Williams is the Jazz, and he believes in Utah. Newly added, proven veterans such as Jefferson, Raja Bell, Earl Watson and Francisco Elson are initially combining to create a tougher, more disciplined team. Meanwhile, rookies Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Evans have shown the potential to contribute during key moments, while also restocking Utah's shelf during the second stretch of Williams' run.
Williams said good NBA teams have three to four star players. But during the course of an 82-game season that is preceded by exhibition play and followed by a lengthy, strenuous postseason, less than a handful of big names is not enough especially against the Jazz's archnemesis, the Los Angeles Lakers. Depth and reliability are essential. "I think we have that this year," Williams said. "I thought we had it last year. I just think we didn't have the heart. We didn't have that mentality that we can beat everybody. A lot of the guys on the team get a new start."
So does Williams. As much as the guard relied on Boozer, their relationship was never a perfect marriage. Williams acknowledged that the team's chemistry reached a low point last season. That was when the Jazz believed they could beat anyone. Then Utah began dancing backward.
"It wasn't great," Williams said. "We had stuff we were dealing with, with contract situations and things like that. I don't really want to get into it. But the chemistry wasn't as good as it could have been."
But change changes everything. As the Jazz jumped out to a franchise-record 7-0 preseason mark, the team's locker room often resembled an upbeat collegiate atmosphere. Longtime players such as C.J. Miles and Kyrylo Fesenko cracked jokes, while Jefferson and Watson quickly fit in.
Williams presided over it all. Often quiet and sometimes invisible. But when he spoke, others listened. And when he took the court, Utah did what it almost always does when he is running the show: win.
"I still feel like I can be better," Williams said. "I still haven't played my best basketball. I haven't reached my peak."
Position • Point guard
Number • 8
Age • 26
Vitals • 6-foot-3, 209 pounds
Career stats • 16.7 points, 9.0 assists, 3.1 rebounds (386 games)
Year • 6
College • Illinois
Williams' Jazz production
Season Pts Ast Reb FG% 3% FT Record
2009-10 18.7 10.5 4.0 46.9 37.1 80.1 53-29
2008-09 19.4 10.7 2.9 47.1 31.0 84.9 48-34
2007-08 18.8 10.5 3.0 50.7 39.5 80.3 54-28
2006-07 16.2 9.3 3.3 45.6 32.2 76.7 51-31
2005-06 10.8 4.5 2.4 42.1 41.6 70.4 41-41