Here he comes, shaking, baking and shoulder-faking his way through the league, leaving defenders knock-kneed with moves so original that his coach isn't sure they're all legal. He has more baggage than his boyish face would indicate, but he finally feels at home now, as if the NBA is where he was meant to be all along. He is instant fun, end-to-end excitement, a one-man reason to spring for that satellite dish you've been thinking about. Already the buzz about him around the league is becoming a roar: Rookie point guard Jason Williams of the Sacramento Kings is a star in the making.
Granted, it is absurdly early in the season to make sweeping judgments about a first-year player, but Williams's quickness, his court vision and his flair command attention. "He's a stud," says Charles Barkley. "He has that charisma about him." Star power is something the 6'1", 190-pound Williams should understand. He's a friend and former high school teammate of Minnesota Vikings receiver Randy Moss; he grew up in Belle, W.Va., not far from Chelyan, the hometown of Los Angeles Lakers great Jerry West; his loose-limbed, almost effortless flamboyance recalls Pete Maravich; and his twang, if you listen closely, has a trace of Elvis in it.
With a dragon tattooed on his right arm and a panther on his left—not to mention an eyeball on his chest—Williams's message to opponents is clear: If there is any intimidating to be done, he will do it. He has an unshakable confidence in his all-around game, which includes the ability to hit jumpers from I-can't-believe-he-shot-that range. But it is his prescience as a playmaker that has drawn raves. "Jason's one of those rare guys who sees the entire court," says Kings coach Rick Adelman. "He sees what's there and what's about to be there, like John Stockton or Magic or Jason Kidd. He's a very special, very creative talent."
Williams isn't the only rookie turning heads. Toronto swingman Vince Carter has been every bit as explosive as the Raptors had hoped; Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce has performed at a level higher than expected of the No. 10 pick; Vancouver Grizzlies point guard Mike Bibby ranks among the league's assist leaders; and 6'11" Raef LaFrentz of the Denver Nuggets has already dropped a couple of double-doubles. With the preseason pared to two weeks because of the lockout, rookies have had to figure out the NBA game on the run; none has been a quicker study than Williams. The seventh choice in the draft was averaging 18.0 points and 4.0 assists through Sunday's games for the suddenly intriguing Kings (2-2), who have also been buoyed by the arrival of forward Chris Webber (23-5 points, 16.5 rebounds and 4.3 blocks a game).
The emergence of Williams comes as no surprise to West, the Lakers' executive vice president, who tried to trade up to draft him. "I watch him play and I think, My goodness, why did so many teams pass him up?" West says. The answer is that Williams twice tested positive for marijuana last season at Florida. That scared off some teams. Like his buddy Moss, who lasted until the 21st pick of the '98 NFL draft because of off-the-field problems, Williams is making teams regret their misgivings. He had 21 points, five steals and three assists in his debut, at San Antonio, after which Spurs point guard Avery Johnson said, "That rookie almost put me into retirement."
Williams may cause a few stereotypes to be retired before he's finished. Ever since he began playing seriously in junior high school in Belle (pop. 1,421) he has been underestimated, largely because of his complexion. "People look at me and see this little skinny white guy," he says. "I can tell they don't expect me to be able to play." They certainly don't expect him to play with such, well, soul. Watching Williams handle the ball is like hearing Pat Boone sing with James Brown's voice. That's why the nicknames like White Chocolate and the White Shadow have popped up. They aren't the ones Williams would pick for himself, but they don't bother him. "At least I know someone's paying attention to me," he says.
Players and coaches aren't just paying attention, they're already trading stories about Williams's legerdemain. "There was this one move he made in Vancouver," says Adelman. "I really have to go back and look at it on tape. He jumped in the air and kind of kept his dribble in midair, kind of suspended it up there. Everybody's looking and thinking, What is that? Can you do that? Then he lands and hits the jumper. I told him I'd never seen that move before. He said, 'I haven't either.' "
Williams has several other moves that he has only shown to his teammates, and you get the feeling that they haven't even gotten past the appetizers on his menu. NBA opponents haven't seen, for instance, the one in which Williams comes down the middle on the fast break with a teammate on either wing. He flips the ball behind him with his left hand as if to make a behind-the-back pass to the right side, then hits the ball with his right elbow to send the pass back to the teammate on the left. "I've done it in pickup games, but I haven't had the guts to do it in a real game yet because it's the kind of thing that will make a coach pull you in a hurry if it doesn't work," Williams, 23, says. "I will do it eventually though. I promise you that."
Believe him. There's not much Williams can't do with the ball, which, like a faithful pet, always finds its way back to him on the dribble. He has a heartbeat-quick crossover, and he can wrap the ball around his body at warp speed before he decides where to pass it. That's the result of countless hours spent in the gym at Dupont High, just Williams and a basketball, getting to know each other better. "I had a key, and I would go there for two or three hours most every night and never even take a shot," he says. "I would just throw the ball against the wall every which way, over and over again."
Sometimes Williams would put on leather gloves and wrap weights around his wrists to make it harder to handle the ball. He would draw a two-by-two-foot square on the wall and throw 10 behind-the-back passes with his right hand, then 10 with his left to see which hand could deliver more inside the square. Then he would whip 20 more passes, and 20 more and 20 more. "Passing has always been my favorite part of the game," says Williams. "I'd rather have 15 assists than 50 points any day."