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Over the years, the Duke Blue Devils have produced some big-time basketball players. With Coach K at the helm, there was a constant flow of talent through Durham. And long before the likes of Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum, and RJ Barrett, Jay Williams — or Jason Williams, as he was known during his time on campus — stole the national spotlight.

These days, though, the New Jersey native is most widely known as an ESPN personality; some younger fans might not know that he even played basketball at all.

So, with that in mind, let’s hop in the time machine and explore just how good Williams was during his time on that hardwood.

Long before stepping into the media, Jay Williams was a legitimate star at Duke

When you think of basketball, New York City is one of the locations that probably springs to mind. Jay Williams cut his teeth across the Hudson River in New Jersey, but that didn’t make him any less of a talent.

The guard made a name for himself at St. Joseph High School, where he played multiple sports. Basketball, however, was his best, and he grew into a McDonald’s All-American. After graduation, he headed south and enrolled at Duke.

While some freshmen can wilt in the spotlight, William lived up to the hype at Duke. He averaged 14.5 points per game, 6.5 assists, and 2.4 steals across the campaign, earning him plenty of recognition.

The best, however, was yet to come.

During the 2000-01 season, J-Will averaged 21.6 points and 6.1 assists per outing, earning consensus First-Team All-American honors. He also stepped up during March Madness — he scored 31 points in a second-round win over Missouri, 34 in the Sweet 16 against UCLA, and 28 in the Elite Eight meeting with USC — as Duke claimed the national championship.

While he couldn’t lead the Blue Devils to back-to-back titles, Williams still found plenty of personal success during the 2001-02 campaign. He averaged 21.3 points, 5.3 assists, and 2.2 steals across the season, clinching the AP Player of the Year award and the Wooden Award as the nation’s most outstanding player.

Unsurprisingly, the guard left Duke that summer to enter the Association. He then joined the Chicago Bulls as the second overall pick of the 2002 NBA draft.

A tragic motorcycle crash essentially ended Williams’ pro career before it got off the ground

At the beginning of this article, the question was, “How good was Jay Williams during his basketball career,” and the answer to that question is complicated. If you just look at the guard’s college career, the answer is simple: he was an incredible talent and one of the greatest NCAA players of all time. If you just look at his NBA career, though, the answer is much different.

As mentioned above, the Chicago Bulls selected Williams with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft. Despite his collegiate success, though, he didn’t set the Association on fire. The young guard averaged 26.1 minutes per game and posted 9.5 points, 4.7 assists, and 1.1 steals per outing across the season.

Then, the accident happened.

In June 2003, Williams was driving a motorcycle without a helmet or a license and crashed into a street light. He suffered severe injuries to his pelvis and leg, which understandably dimmed his basketball future. The Bulls would go on to draft Kirk Hinrich that summer, replacing the man they selected a year earlier.

Williams needed physical therapy to regain the use of his leg but didn’t give up on his basketball dream. He signed a non-guaranteed contract with the New Jersey Nets in 2006 but was released less than a month later. The guard then joined the Austin Toros of what was then called the D-League; he suited up for three games before hanging up his sneakers for good.

In total, Jay Williams’ NBA career amounted to the 75 games he played his rookie year. To this day, he remains one of basketball’s biggest “what ifs.”

How good was Jay Williams as a basketball player?

At this point of the story, you can probably see where this is going. Based on how things played out, it’s tough to assess Jay Williams’ basketball career.

Let’s unpack what we do know.

  • Williams was a true do-it-all talent at Duke. He led his team to an NCAA title and garnered plenty of national recognition.
  • Williams’ first NBA season was a mixed bag. The guard’s overall stat line was disappointing, but he did show flashes of potential, like a memorable triple-double against the Nets.
  • Due to his awful accident, Williams never got a chance to improve upon that first NBA campaign. While it’s not really fair to count that against him — it’s not like he chose to suffer a life-altering injury — it does make it tough to assess his career. As the famous line says, you are what the numbers say you are.

If we’re willing to entertain some hypotheticals, though, Williams could have been on a track to improvement.

At the risk of trotting out a cliche, it takes time for guards to develop; the position may seem simple, but there are multiple moving parts on both ends of the floor. There’s no guarantee that Williams would have taken a great leap forward as an NBA sophomore, but it’s not unreasonable to think he would have improved over time.

That idea is confirmed in an excerpt from Williams’ book, which ran on ABC in 2016. When discussing the lead-up to his accident, the guard remembered how he had returned to Duke and played some pick-up ball with the current Blue Devils. Chris Collins, who was still on Coach K’s staff at the time, apparently noticed a big-time improvement.

“Man, your game has gone to another level,” Williams remembered him saying. “You are going to dominate the league next year if you keep playing like that.”

Is it possible that Collins was trying to give the guard a boost after a tough season? Maybe, but it’s also completely reasonable that J-Will had taken the steps to improve.

It’s also worth remembering that, independent of Williams’ improvements, the NBA landscape was changing. The league outlawed hand-checking ahead of the 2004-05 season, which altered the way guards could attack the basket. When you consider the New Jersey native’s athleticism, it’s easy to imagine him reaping the benefits of that reality.

Ultimately, there’s one thing we can say about Williams: he was incredibly talented. Injuries, though, ultimately derailed his career and kept him from being able to have any success in the NBA. Could he have found his footing in the Association? Sure, but it’s impossible to know how things would have played out.

So, to answer the question posed at the top of this article, yes, Jay Williams was really good at basketball. He just didn’t get to live up to his full potential.

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