Before Jalen Williams had a growth spurt, his physical appearance often left the same first impression:
“He looked awkward,” Paul Suber, Williams’ longtime trainer, recalled with a laugh. “Look at it sideways, you’d think it was the letter ‘L.’ ”
“All arms and legs,” said Sam Duane, Williams’ trainer at Perry High in Gilbert, Arizona.
Williams, a lanky 5-foot-10 high school sophomore, is now a toned 6-foot-6. His arms remain incredibly long — he measured a wingspan of 7ft 2.25 at the NBA Draft Combine in May — but the rest of his body has also matured.
That transformation took the 21-year-old Williams from an unheralded high school freshman to a coveted NBA prospect. The Santa Clara product could very well be a lottery pick in Thursday’s 2022 NBA Draft, a thought that seemed unfathomable just months ago.
But for Williams, it will mark another example of him invalidating those who struck him off – while proving himself right.
“It’s something I thought about, something I worked hard for,” Williams said of her rise. “I didn’t really have any surprises. … I’m just a bit of a fan of letting the work speak for itself and doing this whole process.
“Nothing was really shocking.”
Set to work
Williams was 6 years old when he realized what he wanted to do with his life: he would become a professional basketball player.
“It’s just something you always want to do,” Williams says now.
In college, as a member of the I-10 Celtics from the AAU ranks, Williams first put that vision into motion. Suber, the program’s host, didn’t have a team in Williams’ age group, so he bumped Williams up a few notes.
In the beginning, there were imperfections. The petite Williams has faced 7-foot players in practice. Sometimes, says Suber, it felt more like volleyball than basketball.
“But Jalen figured out how to shoot them because he’s a smart kid and he loves the game,” Suber said.
This, if any, became the theme of Williams’ early basketball career. As his physical development lagged, he found ways around the problems. Under the tutelage of his father, Ron, Jalen performed a mid-air jump. Playing alongside older teammates throughout college, he became a skilled passer. And he found a capable sparring partner in his brother, Cody, now a highly touted high school prospect himself.
Williams had already developed a well-balanced game by the time he rose to 6-foot-4 at the start of his senior year of high school.
“That’s when we started realizing, ‘Wow, this kid, he could have it,'” said Padraig O’Brien, an Arizona-based coach who started working with Williams in high school.
Others took longer to reach the same epiphany.
Hofstra became the first school to offer Williams a scholarship in July 2017, impressed with his performance at the “Rumble in the Bronx,” a summer youth basketball tournament. Other schools followed suit later: Nevada, Santa Clara and Santa Barbara among them.
But even though Williams excelled — he averaged 23 points per game as a high school junior — high major interest proved elusive, even locally.
“The joke was, ‘Jalen’s gone for 30, but nobody cares,'” O’Brien said.
None of this fazed Williams, well known to his peers for his ability to shut out all outside noise. In November 2018, the 3-star prospect — and 242nd-ranked rookie in his class, according to 247Sports — signed up for Santa Clara.
“For some reason it flew under the radar,” Duane said. “A lot of people missed it. But he knew he was good. And he always played with a chip on his shoulder, wanting to show people he was good.
Suber added, “What surprised me was that they weren’t looking at talent. They looked at his build. Everyone said, ‘He’s a little clumsy.’ Me being a New Yorker, I say, “To hell with the eye test.” Do you see the results and the way it plays? ”
His relatives noticed not only his way of playing, but also his way of training.
Lucas Archuleta, a formerly Arizona-based player development coach, recalls Williams showing him a daily schedule during one of their first sessions. At the time, Williams was just a high school student. Yet, much to Archuleta’s surprise, the ritual resembled that of a professional basketball player.
“His confidence, he really started to understand,” Archuleta said. “Like, ‘Hey, I can probably get to this level if I really work at it.’ ”
Unsurprisingly, Williams arrived in Santa Clara “really prepared,” according to Broncos coach Herb Sendek.
But those first two collegiate campaigns had their challenges. The pandemic truncated what had been a strong freshman season — Williams started 23 games, averaging 7.7 points per game — and warped his sophomore year. Due to local COVID ordinances, Santa Clara faced severe gym time restrictions and had to sequester at a hotel in Santa Cruz just to play their schedule.
In turn, Williams’ output plummeted.
“He knew he could improve,” Archuleta said. “And then that summer, at the start of his freshman year, it really started to click for him.”
Sendek could see the difference in Santa Clara’s first preseason scrimmage. Williams was on the cusp of stardom.
“That’s what Jalen does,” Sendek said. “He’s coming back and he’s better. He does more things. And it’s been a fairly constant trademark since I’ve known him.
Now, after earning All-WCC first-team honors and averaging 18 points per game as a junior, Williams is ready to take the next step.
And again, he will have to calm down a new batch of naysayers.
“I think a lot of things happen because obviously I went to a little school,” Williams said. “Things like that play out. You have the questions: ‘Can I play with talent? Can I maneuver around guys? Stuff like that.
“The combine was big for me, just being able to showcase my talents and [show] that they are universal everywhere I play.
At the combine, no one turned more heads than Williams. He impressed with his body measurements and dazzled in the scrums, going from first-round marginal to potential lottery selection, triggering his decision to stay in the draft.
“He’s intriguing,” an NBA scout told The Post of Williams. “Where does it end? I do not know. I feel like a lot of teams thought he was coming back for his senior year and didn’t see him much during the season. Then he got the combine he made, so he ended up staying in the draft, so now we really have to dive into this guy.
Sendek added, “The NBA community discovered here this spring what we have become accustomed to on a day-to-day basis over the past few years.”
Williams said the reality of his dream had yet to reach him, days before the draft. After his selection, he predicts, emotions will set in.
But he won’t be there for long. The next step in his basketball journey awaits him, and he wants to answer the call:
“I’m ready for that next step,” he said.