The wingspan got Donovan Williams noticed.
Now it’s the work that’s going to have to keep him in the NBA. And in Brooklyn.
While several other Nets hopefuls from Summer League have already come and gone — Brison Gresham, Taze Moore and Yves Pons went to play abroad, and David Duke Jr. entered the limbo of free agency — Williams, an undrafted free agent, survived the cut in Las Vegas and is expected to be in Brooklyn next week.
“It’s everything,” Williams said of his chance to find a place on the Nets roster. “I’m in the gym all the time, whether they’re there or not, whether anybody’s watching or whether anybody’s not. For them to understand and see that improvement I’ve made … and understand that the work I’m putting in is really paying off, it means everything to me, because they’re the organization I wanted to play for. So if they have confidence in me, that goes far.”
Williams’ length and defense were what prompted the Nets to bring him to Las Vegas. And after a solid Summer League, the team wants to see more, as Williams confirmed himself in a YouTube video.
“He didn’t hesitate when he got out (to Las Vegas),” said Brooklyn assistant Adam Caporn, who coached the Summer League squad. “Great energy. Strength and communication will be big things for him to succeed in the NBA.”
“He’s somebody that can attack with an advantage”
A four-star Houston-area recruit who naturally wound up with the Longhorns, Williams played sparingly and shot poorly over two years in Austin. But once he transferred to UNLV last year and was entrusted with a chance to play, he didn’t squander it. Williams averaged 12.7 points for UNLV in 2021-22 and drilled a torrid 43.6 percent of his 3-pointers — after hitting just 21.9 percent from deep in two seasons at Texas.
“The guy can shoot it,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger told The Post. “That’s his biggest, his best, attribute. But I wouldn’t say he’s just a shooter. He’s somebody that can attack with an advantage.
“[You can’t] close out because he can get anywhere on the floor with one dribble. When the ball is moving and going from side to side, guys are driving and kicking for each other, he’s somebody that can really, really add to that. And then defensively, he’s just got to use his length to stay in front.”
That length has always been there, as has the 40-inch vertical leap he put on display in finishing an acrobatic open-court lob from Cam Thomas during Summer League. But the range he’s shown the past year — including going 3-of-4 from deep in Las Vegas — is a newer development. And that development has come from time in the lab.
“The whole thing is reps,” Williams said. “When I left Texas and came to UNLV, I hadn’t really worked on my shooting enough to my liking. So I just put the work in. I wouldn’t be [here] if I hadn’t put the work in.
“You shoot 200, 300, 400, 500 just to make that one in the game when it matters. So for me, it’s just always just about reps and going in every day, not wasting the day when I go into gym and just making the best of it.”
A good fit
The Nets believed in Williams — nicknamed “Stretch” for a seven-foot wingspan that belies his 6-foot-6, 190-pound frame — enough to make him part of their offseason plans.
Unlike last year, when the Nets had four draft picks — including a pair of first-rounders — they didn’t have a single selection this June. They also had a tail end of the roster that was in flux — and that was before Kevin Durant’s trade demand and Kyrie Irving’s contract drama.
For Williams, that meant opportunity.
Williams was projected as a borderline second-round pick in some mock drafts. But for many prospects in that range, they’re better off not being selected and getting to choose a destination that suits them. That’s exactly what Williams and his agent had the foresight to do in making it known he’d rather not be selected.
“Honestly, on draft night, it was coming down close,” Williams said. “I was trying to figure out which team … I felt most comfortable with, which team I felt like I had the best chance to go in and make the squad. So I got on the phone with Brooklyn … and it was such a surreal moment. I had my childhood friends around me, my family around me. … [T]hat was just everything for me.
“I felt like Brooklyn was a team that I worked out with and I really enjoyed over the pre-draft process,” Williams added. “So it was definitely, I’d say, probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life, just in that moment having to choose hearing my name called there over the rest of my career. … But I feel confident that I made the right one.”
The Nets were convinced enough that they’re expected to allocate one of their three Exhibit 10 deals to Williams (Chris Chiozza already has one, leaving the third as the open final roster spot).
An Exhibit 10 is a one-year, non-guaranteed minimum-salary deal that counts against the 20-man training camp limit but not the salary cap — unless Williams can impress coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks enough to make the regular-season roster. Even if Williams is waived, the Nets would keep his G League rights, and he could earn a $50,000 bonus if he joined their Long Island affiliate.
Making it to opening night with the Nets may be a long shot, but he’s outworked the odds before.
“Tracy McGrady wants to work me out?”
When Williams has gone to work on his game, often that has been alone, or with his UNLV coaches. Recently, that even meant with a well-known Houston resident.
“Tracy McGrady … he came to me,” Williams said. “Maybe like a year or so ago, his brother came — they used to watch our games at Elkins [High School] — they said they really just wanted to work out. Tracy McGrady wants to work me out? That’s the type of player I want to be when I grow up.”
Working out with the seven-time All-Star was a pinch-me moment for Williams. But then again, he’s had a couple on this journey.
Williams can recall his older half-sister Kelsey Bone grinding her way from lightly recruited prospect to the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft (by the Liberty). When she played with the Las Vegas Aces in 2018, he watched and absorbed what it meant to be a pro.
“The moment I said I was going to enter the draft we’ve been talking and she’s been giving me tips: just what to expect, how to move, how to act, how to be professional, not just on the court, but off the court,” Williams said. “So having her by my side and behind me, being a pro, and everything that she’s gone through, I feel like it’s kind of a cheat code.
“I look at the picture of me and Kelsey all the time, and it’s kind of surreal. At the time I was just there: I didn’t really understand all the things that were going on. I just was there to support my sister. And now it’s my turn.”
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