It was just a walk to the bank, but Nigel Williams-Goss found himself interrupted.
A stream of workers rushed out of a bakery across the street from where he was walking, wanting autographs and pictures. Before he could free himself of the gaggle of fans, they gave him a cake with his jersey number on it.
These basketball-crazy admirers aren’t in Spokane, where Williams-Goss became a local legend for leading Gonzaga to the NCAA finals. This is in Belgrade, Serbia, where the former college star and Jazz draft pick has started cementing another chapter of his basketball career.
“It’s one of the few countries in Europe where basketball is bigger than soccer — or I guess you’d say football,” Gross said via phone last month. “The club history goes back many, many years — it’s basically passed down through generations of fans. It’s this whole lineage.”
Williams-Goss has embedded himself into that lineage for KK Partizan, a Belgrade-based pro club where he has spent the last year improving his game. Partizan’s season ended in the Serbian League semifinals, but Williams-Goss contributed 20 points, three rebounds and three assists in the effort.
After realizing last year that he would have an uphill climb to make the Jazz roster as the No. 55 pick in the NBA draft, the 6-foot-3 guard made a bold leap overseas. He and his agent opted to start his journey in Serbia, which has feverish basketball support, if not the same recent success as other European franchises.
Partizan plays in the Eurocup league, which is one tier below Euroleague (where Jazz players such as Joe Ingles and Ekpe Udoh played). Even in Belgrade, Partizan ranks below Euroleague club Crvena Zvezda. But in February, Williams-Goss helped get Partizan some hardware: He had 23 points, seven assists and three rebounds in an 81-75 win over Crvena Zvezda to win the Serbian Cup.
It was a victory that resounded throughout Serbia — and people in Utah were paying attention, too. It wasn’t long after the game that a gift basket from the Jazz showed up outside Williams-Goss’ door. It’s part of a number of ways the Jazz have kept in touch: He’s met with front office officials and scouts several times in Serbia, and he, Donovan Mitchell and Udoh got together when the Euroleague Final Four was in town earlier in May.
“They’re making sure I feel the support, and that I feel like part of the organization from afar,” he said. “Obviously, it’s awesome.”
Should Williams-Goss make a return to the NBA, the Jazz would retain his rights. While he looked overmatched at times during Summer League last year after he was drafted, there’s reason to think he has adjusted his game. European stats can be difficult to decipher because clubs play in so many different leagues and tournaments, but in Eurocup, Adriatic and Serbian league play, Williams-Goss has averaged better than 16 points and 6 assists while shooting better than 46 percent from 3-point range.
Notably, the European game is far more physical than college basketball, and defenses tend to crowd around the basket, forcing Williams-Goss to develop as a reliable 3-point shooter. European teams also tend to play full-court press throughout entire games, which has forced him to develop his handles against pressure.
“It’s like playing West Virginia every game, and over time you get used to it,” Williams-Goss said. “Under normal speed, normal pressure, I feel like I can play my game even better and rely on my strengths, even with pressure on me.”
The summer will bring a number of questions, including if Williams-Goss will play in Summer League again for the Jazz, and if he has a realistic shot to make the roster. He’ll spend at least a chunk of his offseason training in Los Angeles, now more acquainted with what the European game demands. If not the NBA, Williams-Goss could be poised to jump to Euroleague, a leap which Partizan players — including Jan Vesely, Joffrey Lauvergne and Bogdan Bogdanovic — have made before.
But there’s no rush to address the future: Williams-Goss said he’s come to like Serbian life. He likes how laid back life in Belgrade is, and how people are more likely to come to a cafe to talk to each other rather than scroll through their phones.
He likes the food, he likes the fans, he likes the places he’s gotten to see. And that might be the biggest way he’s grown in the last year.
“Belgrade is a special place,” he said. “I’ve travelled around Europe this season, and just the vibe and the energy, the social interaction and laid-back feel of Belgrade — I’ve enjoyed more than I thought I would.”
NIGEL WILLIAMS-GOSS UPDATE
• Helped lead Gonzaga to the NCAA championship game in 2017, where the Zags lost to North Carolina.
• Was the Jazz’s second-round pick (55th overall) in the 2017 NBA Draft.
• Averaged more than 16 points and 6 assists, and shot better than 46 percent from 3-point range in combined European league play this past season.