by Matt Saldaña
According to a Wednesday press release, breakout guard Elliot Williams will be leaving Duke's basketball team after one season to be closer to his family in Memphis, Tenn., due to family medical reasons. The release notes that Williams plans to appeal the NCAA rule that transfers must sit out one season, and play for a school "closer to his hometown of Memphis." We extend our best to Williams and his family, and offer the following two observations:
1. This will be a huge loss for Duke. (See Jacob Swiger's post for more.)
2. Duke's loss will most likely be the University of Memphis's gain. The Tigers are losing their own standout quasi-point guard, Tyreke Evans, in this year's NBA draft, and would be a natural fit for Williams' up-tempo game.
In April, I bumped into Williams—who I'd only encountered previously in post-game interviews—at a bar in downtown Durham called 1013 West Main, where he was watching another Memphis guard, Derrick Rose, battle Rajon Rondo and the Boston Celtics in perhaps the most thrilling first-round NBA series of all time. (It was Game 2, which Boston won on an assist from Rondo—his 16th—and a three-pointer by Ray Allen.)
I asked Williams who he liked better, Rondo or Rose, and Williams said Rose, but admitted he was biased. Williams, it turns out, had worked out with the future NBA Rookie of the Year in Memphis when he was deciding what school to attend. He said Rose was a nice guy, and quiet.
But Williams chose Duke over Memphis, he said, to play for Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Though Duke fizzled out early in this year's NCAA tournmament, Williams' season ended on a high note—thanks to an unexpected coaching decision by Krzyzewski to start Williams at the point for the final stretch of the season. Williams ignited Duke's offense, and served as a defensive stalwart against opposing guards, though he didn't function as a ball-handler or much of a passer. (He managed just five assists in Duke's three-game post-season run.) Williams' effect was most felt in intangibles, such as his four steals (including three in 40 seconds) in a critical, high-scoring win against Wake Forest.
At the time of our conversation at 1013 West Main, Gerald Henderson hadn't yet declared for the NBA Draft, and Williams said he was excited about his prospects for next year, whether he played the point, or the swingman position, which will be open now that Henderson is out. "Wherever Coach wants to play me," he said.
But open roster slots do not make Duke the better team, and Williams may have foreseen a rebuilding season as Duke awaits Stephen Curry's brother, Seth, to join the roster for the 2010-11 season. That isn't to diminish Williams' stated desire to be with his loved ones; it's just to say that Memphis—ostensibly, a better contender than Duke next year—might also be a better fit for him as he looks forward to an NBA career (which, incidentally, would help said loved ones out, a whole lot).
It's all speculation for now, but Williams' coach next year—the one deciding whether he plays point, the 3-spot, or something in between—may well be rookie Memphis coach Josh Pastner, assuming Memphis is the school "closer to Memphis" that is closest to Williams' heart.