Kings know Williams holds keys to castle Ex-Terp is great rookie, but team looks for more

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Walt Williams makes no claim to being a Renaissance man. He has a college degree from Maryland, but his tastes run simple. He likes to shoot pool and listen to soul music. He mostly just enjoys hanging with the fellas, to borrow one of his favorite expressions.

But if the Sacramento Kings are to emerge from the Dark Ages any time soon, their youngest player must show them the light. Mitch Richmond and Lionel Simmons are key players, obviously, but the hopes of a beleaguered franchise rest largely on Williams becoming a full-fledged star, and soon.

As his rookie season winds down, the expectations are at least as great as they were when the Kings selected him with the seventh overall pick in the draft. Williams is averaging 17 points, fourth among the league's first-year players, and he has a good shot at making the All-Rookie Team in a season top-heavy with standout newcomers.

Williams has shown a willingness to take the tough shot -- or any shot, for that matter. He scored 40 points against the Philadelphia 76ers. He has scored at least 20 points in 19 games. Though he arrived out of shape, he whipped himself into much better condition while missing 16 games because of a broken finger in his right hand.

On the negative side, he is not yet close to being even an adequate defensive player, and his passing skills are too often overused or underused, if that makes sense.

For all of that, the Kings have not drafted -- or at least drafted and kept -- a more promising rookie since moving to Sacramento in 1985. He is 6 feet 8, 230 pounds, and he has a serious game.

"I think this team will eventually be built around Walt," Kings forward Anthony Bonner said. "We have Mitch Richmond and Lionel Simmons, who are excellent players, but Walt brings so much to the table. One day, this will be his team."

Williams is not one to brag, possessing a nice mixture of confidence and modesty. But he gives off a definite sense that his personal expectations need not be lowered an inch one year into his professional career.

"I think I will get a lot better," Williams said. "I know I have the talent and skills to be one of the best players in this league."

He has reason to feel good about his lot. He drives a shiny new Mazda 929, he is single, he makes upward of $2 million a year. Life could be worse.

But it also could be better.

"This probably would have meant more to me if my father were here," Williams said. "He never got a chance to see a minute of my dream."

The day before the Kings used their lottery pick to select his son, Walt Williams Sr. learned he had throat cancer. The end came quickly, and he died Oct. 13.

Theresa Williams flew West to live with her son for a couple of weeks early in the season, helping him get through it, but if anything, the loss hurts more now than it did six months ago.

"It seems like it was yesterday," Williams said. "It still hits me hard. A lot of people tell me I'm strong because no one has ever seen me shed a tear, but no one knows how much I was hurting."

When the Kings played the Washington Bullets earlier this month in Landover, Md., Williams established a $125,000 scholarship fund in his father's name at the University of Maryland.

"I lost my dad at a young age as well," Kings coach Garry St. Jean said. "But what more can you say for your love of your dad than to establish a scholarship fund in his name? That was really neat."

Williams comes from an extremely close family. Walt Sr. grew up in North Carolina, one of nine children. He dropped out of school to help the family make ends meet, eventually becoming manager of an office supply store. Theresa grew up in Washington, D.C., attending just one semester of college, but both of their children -- Stephanie and Walt -- graduated from Maryland.

Stephanie Williams wound up being the one who encouraged Walt to play organized basketball. As a tall, skinny kid, he preferred playing shirts and skins on the blacktop. He preferred hanging out with the fellas.

"I never played any boys club basketball, because that would cut into my time hanging out with the fellas on the street," Williams said. "I started getting serious about it my freshman year in high school. Even then, I didn't really want to play, but my sister talked me into it."

Williams stood 6-2 as a freshman at Crossland High. He made the varsity as a sophomore and started as a junior when Crossland won the Maryland AAAA championship. The team was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the Washington metropolitan area before Williams lost the final game of his prep career in the state finals.

"Walter was very unselfish," said Earl Hawkins, his coach at Crossland who now coaches at UMBC. "He loved to practice and play the game."

Williams was recruited by Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College, but he never really considered any school but the one down the road in College Park. It didn't hurt that Maryland coach Bob Wade made a strong impression on Theresa Williams, either.

"My mother thought he resembled my father. She got a big kick out of that," Williams said.

Wade, a highly successful high school coach, proved to be in over his head at Maryland. He was fired after Walt's freshman season and Maryland was placed on NCAA probation a year later because of assorted recruiting improprieties.

Ohio State coach Gary Williams replaced Wade and had to deal with the fallout. Walt started at point guard his sophomore year, but when the penalties came down during the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the Wizard had the opportunity to search out another Oz.

Williams was free to transfer to any school without losing any eligibility. Probation would prevent Maryland from appearing on television for one year and from participating in postseason play for each of his remaining two years. Georgetown was interested when Williams hit the open market again, as were St. John's and Virginia.

"I knew that decision would affect me for the rest of my life," Williams said. "They told me no TV, no tournament. That was one of the reasons I went to the ACC, to be on TV."

He decided to stay, and Gary Williams breathed a huge sigh of relief.

"I'll never forget it to this day," Gary Williams said. "Walt came into my office in August and said, 'Well, what kind of shoes are we going to wear this year?' "

Williams wound up leading the ACC in scoring as a senior, averaging 26.8 points. He scored 30 points or more in seven straight games, something no ACC player -- not David Thompson, Bob McAdoo or Michael Jordan -- had ever done.

He also left school with a degree in management and consumer studies.

"He got a degree in four years even though it was pretty well established he'd be a professional by the time he was a junior," Gary Williams said. "He respected his mom and dad so much, he didn't want to let them down."

When asked to account for his confidence, or his levelheadedness, or his ability to take the bad with the good, Williams invariably refers to the education he received at Maryland.

"People might not have thought staying was the best decision, but I thought it was, because I made it," he said. "It helped me grow as a person, as a man."

After spending the first 22 years of his life living within a short radius of the nation's capital, Williams seems to adjust well to his home away from home.

"I was ready to make the move," Williams said. "It's definitely slower than D.C., but I'm not here to party, I'm here to take care of business."

Once he became acclimated, Williams became one of the best-liked members of the team. Fellas such as Bonner enjoy hanging with him off the court.

"When he first got here, it was a difficult transition because he didn't really know what people expected from him," Bonner said. "As he got a little more comfortable, he could be himself. I would find it hard to believe anyone could dislike Walt Williams. I know I could get the shirt off his back if I needed it."

What the Kings need is for Williams to make substantial improvement in his second season. Williams plans on spending part of the summer in Sacramento, working on his game.

"I can see the potential, and I have a very good feeling Walt will maximize that potential," St. Jean said. "We're talking about a guy who is making a commitment this off-season that will give him a chance not to have a good second season, but an outstanding second season."

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