“We draft people first and players second,” said Thunder GM Sam Presti last summer.
When Santa Clara guard Jalen Williams was taken No. 12 overall in Thursday night’s draft, it was surprising to some. However, when you dig deeper into his game and personal story it makes complete sense.
A late bloomer, Williams wasn’t on many NBA teams’ radars as a top pick until after his final college season. At the Thunder’s rookie introductory press conference on Saturday, Presti even admitted that the team didn’t truly consider Williams in the lottery until later in the draft process.
“The truth on Jalen is our eyes really opened later to him in this process,” Presti said. “I wish I could tell you that last year at Santa Clara I could say we knew this guy was a lottery pick. That wasn’t the case.”
It took a spectacular pre-draft process on and off the court to spark what ended up being a perfect scenario for both parties. How did it all come together?
A three-year college guard, Williams broke out his junior season in an expanded role. The 6-foot-6 guard with an impressive 7-foot-2 wingspan produced 18.0 points per contest while nearly doubling his assist output from the season prior.
He became a much better playmaker and all-around contributor, earning 2021-22 All-WCC honors. Quietly behind the scenes, Williams was building a case to be one of the most underrated players in the country.
“I think just better understanding the game. Just getting reps and being able to go through all of the sequences I saw on the film,” Williams told Forbes when asked what led to his breakout season. “I also grew later, so just being a point guard early on really helped that as well.”
Over the past few years, the Santa Clara prospect has continued to grow taller and develop an NBA-ready body. He also worked extremely hard to improve on the court, taking after one of the greatest basketball players of all time to motivate himself.
Williams will wear No. 8 with the Thunder, which is a tribute to the late Kobe Bryant. He’s adopted the “mamba mentality” which shows in his work ethic, mindset and success in developing quickly.
For young prospects, year-over-year growth is indicative of longterm development. Williams’ work ethic has proven to pay off as he’s gotten significantly better every year of college and even prior to that.
In fact, Williams got his first chance at college playing time early on simply due to his defense. Over the years he evolved his game and emerged as a primary ball handler, a point guard in many instances. Each year, new dimensions have been added to his game.
As good as he is today, this is the type of player that continues the trend into the NBA and gets better each and every offseason. This is something front offices take seriously when evaluating talent.
Williams carried a ton of momentum from his highly productive final college season into the draft process. With that in mind, as his college career ended, he still wasn’t projected to even be taken in the first round.
In retrospect, he was always a lottery talent, but that didn’t become clear to teams until they got the full Jalen Williams experience. A standout performer at the combine and a prospect that was able to showcase his high IQ and charisma in interviews, Williams didn’t fly up draft boards until well after his junior season had come to a close.
It’s his personality and approach that makes Williams stand out, which is what Santa Clara Head Coach Herb Sendek thinks ultimately led to his rise up draft boards over the past two months.
“It wasn’t that Jalen wasn’t a lottery pick when the pre-draft process started,” said Sendek. “He was always a lottery pick, and through that process teams discovered that.”
During his time at Santa Clara many NBA scouts hadn’t been able to get to know Williams, understand him as a person and his mindset towards the game. It took the months leading up to the draft for him to really get a fair chance at proving himself.
“Before the draft process started, at best, they watched him on television, courtside at a game or in film,” Sendek told Forbes. “But through the draft process he was brought into more intimate settings with teams and I think this process of growing more intimate is very favorable to Jalen.”
The relationship between Presti and Sendek dates back to when he coached former Thunder draftee James Harden at Arizona State. During the pre-draft process, these two connected and began to discuss Williams as a person and player.
Not only does Williams’ on-court skillset fit what Oklahoma City is building perfectly, but his personality is exactly what the Thunder desire in their players.
Sendek gave insight into his thoughts on Williams as a person and some of the things he told Presti on their initial phone call.
“It’s difficult to describe Jalen in just a few sentences,” said Williams’ former coach. “He is a big personality with a beautiful spirit and a wonderful heart. It wouldn’t be possible for me to say enough good things about the kind of person that he is. He has this charisma, this love of life that just oozes out and he pulls people in as a result.”
This vibrant, charismatic personality is what helped Williams become the leader of the team his final season of college and a key driver of the Broncos’ 21-12 record. It’s also what will make him a fan favorite in Oklahoma City.
Williams projects to be an immediate impact player for the Thunder, but also one of the most fun off the court. In a small market with a true community feel, Williams is the perfect fit.
When the college season ended, the odds of Williams landing in the lottery to a team like the Thunder seemed slim. Now, it could all work out for the best.