The tricks have always been the easy part, and not just when he's had a basketball in his hands. Give him any prop—a coin, a deck of cards—and Jason Williams will delight and amaze you. The passes off the elbow, the aces that rise to the top of the deck, they're the same thing, really, all misdirection and sleight of hand. People want to know how he does them, but Williams, the Sacramento Kings' second-year point guard, never gives more than a wink and a smile by way of explanation, and somehow that satisfies those who ask. The tricks have always been enough.
They have also been a shield. Dazzle the people with magic, and they won't look too closely at the magician. That has allowed Williams to pull off his greatest deception, seeming like the life of the party on the court while being a recluse at heart. But discerning members of the audience have begun to demand more, and he hasn't delivered, at least not consistently. That's why many observers are beginning to believe that the grandest illusion of all has been the glorification of Williams himself.
After an electrifying debut last season, Williams, 24, has been wildly erratic this year, regressing in almost every way. His turnovers (2.9 per game last year, 3.8 this season through Sunday) have soared while his shooting percentage (37.4 in 1998-99, 35.5 at week's end) has plunged. Defensively he's been like an underachieving student: His coaches believe he could do the work if only he'd apply himself. Although Williams remains beloved at ARCO Arena, grumbling can be heard even among some Kings fans when he misfires on a three-pointer before most of his teammates have crossed half-court, or when he eschews a simple bounce pass for a flamboyant flip that ends up in a spectator's nachos.
The nightly highlight shows still adore him, and merchandise bearing his number 55 still flies off shelves all over the country, but basketball purists come away from Williams's performances looking as if they've just sucked on a lemon. "He is the most overrated player in basketball, because they made such a big fuss over him last year," says former Phoenix Suns coach Danny Ainge, now a Turner Sports analyst. "He was exciting, and I admit I loved watching him play and do some of that stuff, but he would drive me crazy as a coach."
The Kings' opponents are just as harsh. "In the two games we played them, I don't think I saw him throw a regular pass—two hands, or even one hand—right to another guy," says Atlanta Hawks point guard Bimbo Coles. "He throws 'em behind the back, no-look, doing a spin, anything he can dream up, but he won't throw a simple pass. We beat them both times. What does that tell you?"
One thing Williams will tell you is that the Kings are losing far less often than they did before he arrived, although he's quick to point out that he's just one of the contributors to Sacramento's turnaround. The Kings' record, 36-26 through Sunday, is heady stuff given their woeful history. "People used to see Sacramento as an automatic win, and they don't anymore," Williams says. "Everyone can criticize me if they want to, but as long as I'm contributing to our team winning, and as long as my teammates and my coaching staff don't have any major problems with the way I play, I don't care what anyone else says about me, because I know I must be doing something right."
In a league that has bored a significant number of fans out of their seats in the past few years, a player with Williams's wizardry should be cultivated more than criticized. But if anything, the Kings have been too nurturing, gently trying to tone down his game without stifling his remarkable vision and flair. Even though his shooting percentage is among the worst the league has seen in decades (chart, p. 80), Williams feels free to fire away. He had made only 27.3% of his three-pointers at week's end, yet he had shot more of them than anyone in the league except the Seattle SuperSonics' Gary Payton (35.4%), which suggests that Williams would benefit from a tighter rein.
Sacramento coach Rick Adelman acknowledges that Williams would be better off concentrating on shooting inside the arc, but Adelman insists that he's not dissatisfied with his point guard's overall performance. "I think his progress has been fine," Adelman says. "He's still in the top 10 in assists in the league [ Williams was ninth with 7.9 dishes per game through Sunday], he's still pushing the ball up the floor and helping us get easy baskets. He's had a couple of games where he's floundered, but he's just going through what every young player goes through."
If the Kings defended against opponents as staunchly as they defend Williams, they wouldn't be 26th in the league in points allowed. "There are times when he needs to slow down a little, but he energizes our offense," says forward Chris Webber. "He still is one of the best in the league at seeing the floor and getting the ball to open guys. Other players might rip him, but all those guys would love to play with him." Even Sacramento assistant Pete Carril, whose Princeton teams were famous for their sound fundamentals, believes Williams's game needs only minor adjustments. "This guy is special, and if you take away his flair, you make him ordinary," Carril says. "I get a little pain in my chest at some of the things he does, but he's got a very patient head coach, which is exactly what he needs. He doesn't need somebody like me, who would be yelling at him all the time."
Still, there's no escaping the fact that Williams's game, which pushed the boundaries of acceptable showmanship last season, has often gone over the edge this year. In New York last month, the Kings were trailing the Knicks by 12 points near half-time when he passed up a breakaway layup to toss the ball off the backboard for Webber, who missed the dunk. "You have to question if Williams is ever going to be a winner," says one Western Conference scout. "It just looks like he cares a lot more about making the unbelievable pass than he does about making a play to help his team win."