These days, it’s easy to cast aside team culture as cliché. For all its popularity in sports vernacular it remains an abstract concept. Unquantifiable. Hard to capture. Even harder to sustain. Its obviousness among truly great teams is irrefutable, yet an agreed upon definition remains unattainable. So, the question remains, how does a struggling NBA team consciously cultivate a winning culture? They start by signing guys like Alan Williams.
This past July, Williams agreed to a 3-year, $17 million contract with the Phoenix Suns. The deal not only keeps Williams, (who is nicknamed Big Sauce), in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, but it also solidifies the Suns commitment to quality character and locker room leadership in the midst of a cautiously optimistic rebuild.
It was an easy decision for Suns GM Ryan McDonough who believes Williams’ relationship with his teammates both on and off the court is a rarity:
“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, I think Alan is the guy that would get more votes…than maybe all the other guys combined. That’s how well-respected he is among his teammates.”
Believe it or not, Williams hasn’t always been such a sure-fire selection for a roster spot, at any level. He played in only one game as a high school freshman and averaged just 3.5 points as a sophomore. After a much-improved junior year, he had a tremendous senior season averaging 22.1 points, 16.2 rebounds and 4.5 blocks; achieving Arizona State Player of the Year honors while leading North High School to a Metro Region Championship and the Class 5A quarterfinals. Still, college options were sparse.
After landing at UC Santa Barbara, Big Sauce went on to All-Big West First Team honors in consecutive years as a sophomore, junior and senior. He won the 2013-14 Big West Player of the Year award while leading the NCAA in rebounding as a junior and senior. He remains UC Santa Barbara’s career leader in rebounds and is second in both career points and blocked shots. Still, when Williams departed college in 2015, professional basketball looked the other way.
Undrafted, Williams played 2015 NBA Summer League for both the Charlotte Hornets and Houston Rockets. Unsurprisingly, he earned All-NBA Summer League Second Team honors for his play with the Rockets in Vegas. Also, unsurprisingly, NBA teams remained indifferent.
The Qingdao DoubleStar Eagles of the Chinese Basketball Association offered a one-year deal. Williams accepted, averaging a double-double while leading the league with 15.4 rebounds per game. Still, crickets.
Oh, how easily, Williams, overcome with resentment and self-pity, might’ve packed it in, headed home and found a “real” job. Not Big Sauce. As fate would have it, home beckoned in the form of a 10-day contract with the Phoenix Suns. His team. To this day, Williams remembers being given a Suns jersey as a youngster. It was too long – “it didn’t fit me at all,” he said – but from that day on, he was a Suns fan.
Fast forward to now and that 10-day contract was all Big Sauce needed to prove his worth in Phoenix. Last season, beginning in March, when he started seeing significantly more minutes, Williams posted a double-double in 11 of the 21 games he played in. Moreover, he remains consistent in areas of the game he’s excelled at since high school. Namely, rebounding and hustle plays. Big Sauce’s stats aren’t necessarily glamorous, but that’s not his game, nor should it be. Given the Suns’ current roster, he fits in perfectly with on court contributions that very much mirror his impact off it, indispensable yet, in many ways, incalculable.
|Alan Williams’ 2016-17 NBA Rank Among All Forwards (Per 36 Minutes)|
|Loose Balls Recovered||23rd|
* (According to NBA.com, Screen Assists are screens that lead directly to a made field goal)
Part of that incalculable impact is Williams’ genuine team-first approach. Coming off a huge double-double against Chicago this past February, Big Sauce was asked if he gets frustrated with his lack of playing time. His response was immediate.
“No, sir. Not whatsoever. Not with this team, not how I’ve been raised or how I’ve always tried to see the game of basketball. At the end of the day, these are my brothers, so anytime I see them being successful, I want to be a part of that in any way I can and cheer them on every single way I can. I don’t see it as the last guy on the bench kind of area, more of a support role as a teammate and try to be a great teammate and try to help this organization any way I can.”
Those are words from a player worth putting a $17 million bet on.
Paradoxically, only year one of three (i.e., $6 million of the total $17 million) is guaranteed on Williams’ recent deal with an additional $1 million guaranteed trigger for minute, weight and body fat requirements in 2018 and 2019. While the Suns understandably have to protect themselves from potential downside, does the organization really think after all these years that Big Sauce needs additional incentives to succeed?
In reality, Williams would probably have it no other way. After all, he’s been doubling down on himself for quite a while. His belief comes from within, unwavering, infectious and exactly what Phoenix needs.
As the valley of the sun looks to welcome in a new era of NBA success beginning in 2017-18, the situation is reminiscent of an idea put forth by Sam Walker of The Wall Street Journal in his recent book, “The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams”.
Walker argues that spans of time where sports teams experience heightened success are bookended by certain player’s careers. Specifically, not the most talented players, but those who were the most dogged and injected a continuous drive into the team’s spirit.
It’s worth pondering: has Phoenix found their bookend in Alan Williams to the beginning of something great? Only time will tell. But one thing is for certain, Big Sauce won’t fail for a lack of admirable qualities that are clearly visible yet hidden to us all.
photo via llananba