When rebuilding a team, you sometimes have to get lucky on a few hunches. Donnie Walsh already had one with the decision to draft unheralded prospect Landry Fields in the second round. But Walsh might be on the verge of going two-for-two, as Shawne Williams has emerged from a non-guaranteed training camp invitee to a valuable reserve in Mike D'Antoni's rotation.
With 13 points in 21 minutes on 5 of 7 shooting from the field in Friday's win over New Orleans, Williams provided a much-needed dimension for this team: a knock-down shooter. Toney Douglas and Bill Walker have been inconsistent and Roger Mason Jr. has struggled to regain his shooting form from his San Antonio days, so D'Antoni has been searching for a shooter to take advantage of those double-teams designed to stop Amar'e Stoudemire and the emerging pick-and-roll with Raymond Felton.
Williams, as evidenced not just in Friday's game but by what he has showed in practice scrimmages, has a sweet stroke, but more importantly, he's a high-IQ player who generally makes smart plays and moves the ball.
"I just want to thank Coach for giving me this opportunity," Williams said. "I knew it was going to come because, you know, it's 82 game season and with Ronny [Turiaf] down we're short some players. I just wanted to be ready and help the team when I could help them."
Williams came to the Knicks as a reclamation project desperate for a second chance. We told you his story back in October, just days before he was surprisingly chosen over fan-favorite Patrick Ewing Jr. for the final roster spot before opening night. Williams, whose troubled past made him somewhat of a risk, worked hardest on proving he had put his problems behind him while he put in extra time after practice working on his game. The 6-9 forward said he knew an opportunity would come sooner or later and his goal was to be ready for it.
"In this league, everybody gets a chance, everybody," Williams said. "Doesn't matter who you are, you could be the last person on the bench. But someone you always get a chance because it's 82 games . . . you just got to stay ready. Coach did a good job with preparing me though."
Truth is, D'Antoni has been talking about Williams for the last two weeks and just looking for a reason to get him into a game. Williams has played in each of the last three games (though his 1:37 against the Nets on Tuesday was garbage time) and will likely be in the rotation for the foreseeable future.
"We just needed what he gives us," D'Antoni said. "Shooting and I knew he was going to be open because of Amar'e and the pick-and-roll. We need somebody to knock 'em down and he did."
For Williams, that seems to be the easy part in this comeback for a former first round pick who after drug-related arrests and poor choices found himself out of the league just three seasons into his career when the Nets waived him in January.
"It's a lot different than before because through all the things I've been through, it's a lot different," Williams said. "I'm just playing ball. It's a lot easier. When I get on the court, all the off the court stuff and all the issues, it's out of my mind. I'm just playing ball."
Williams, who like many players whose growth is hindered by the tractor beam of guilt by less fortunate friends from their neighborhood, said he had an epiphany after his last transgression in July, when he was arrested along with friends in Memphis -- including former Memphis Tigers teammate Kareem Cooper -- allegedly in possession of drugs and a loaded gun. Williams was charged with driving with a suspended license.
The arrest came days after Williams played for the Charlotte Bobcats in the NBA Summer League and effectively ended any chance of getting an invite to Bobcats training camp. The Knicks agreed to have him in as a 16th player mostly as a favor to agent Happy Walters, who also represents Amar'e Stoudemire. Walsh knew Williams well because he was with the Pacers when Larry Bird selected him 17th overall in the 2006 draft.
No one knew what to expect when Williams arrived, but he was already a changed man.
"It was like a lightswitch clicked on one day and I just knew what I should be doing," Williams said. "I knew I should be just playing ball and that's the bottom line. I just got back into it."
At 24, there's still plenty of time for him. And though he openly laments the three wasted years, the road did lead him here, far away from that undisciplined kid who arrived in Indiana.
"I'm not going to say I'm in a better place because it could have been better, but I can say I wouldn't trade this space where I'm at now for nothing in the world," Williams said. "I'm playing ball, I love what I'm doing and I'm with a good group of guys."