OKC Thunder Rookie Jalen Williams’ Ascension Into Draft Lottery

“We design the people first and then the players,” Thunder GM Sam Presti said last summer.

When Santa Clara guard Jalen Williams was picked 12th overall in Thursday night’s draft, it came as a surprise to some. However, when you delve deeper into his game and personal history, it makes perfect sense.

A late bloomer, Williams wasn’t on the radar of many NBA teams as a top pick until after his senior season in college. In fact, at the introductory press conference for Thunder’s rookie on Saturday, Presti admitted that the team didn’t really consider Williams until later in the drafting process.

“The truth about Jalen is that we really opened his eyes later in the process,” Presti said. “I wish I could tell you that I could say in Santa Clara last year that we knew this guy was a lottery winner. That was not the case.”

It took a spectacular pre-design process on and off the pitch to trigger a perfect scenario for both parties. How did it all come together?

As a three-year college guard, Williams broke out his junior season in an extended role. The 6-foot-6 guard with an impressive 7-foot-2 wingspan averaged 18.0 points per competition while nearly doubling his assist output over the previous season.

He became a much better playmaker and versatile contributor, earning 2021-22 All-WCC honors. Behind the scenes, Williams built a case for being one of the most underrated players in the country.

“I think I just understand the game better. Just getting replays and being able to go through all the sequences I saw in the movie,” Williams told Forbes when asked what led to his breakout season. “I grew later on too, so being a point guard early on really helped too.”

In recent years, the Santa Clara prospect has continued to grow and develop an NBA-ready physique. He’s also worked extremely hard to improve on the court, targeting one of the greatest basketball players of all time to motivate himself.

Williams will wear the No. 8 with the Thunder, which pays homage to the late Kobe Bryant. He has adopted the “mamba mentality” which is evident in his work ethic, mindset and success in rapid development.

For young prospects, year-on-year growth is an indication of long-term development. Williams’ work ethic has paid off as he’s gotten significantly better with each year of college and even before.

In fact, Williams got his first shot at college playing early on simply because of his defense. Over the years he developed his game and grew into a primary ball handler, in many cases a point guard. New dimensions were added to his game every year.

As good as he is today, this is the type of player that continues the trend into the NBA and gets better season after season. This is something front offices take seriously when evaluating talent.

Williams brought a lot of momentum to the drafting process from his highly productive senior season in college. Considering this, he was still not selected to the first round at the end of his college career.

Looking back, he was always a lottery talent, but teams didn’t realize that until they had the full Jalen Williams experience. A standout performer at the combine and a prospect who could demonstrate his high IQ and charisma in interviews, Williams didn’t fly to the draft boards until well after his junior season was over.

It’s his personality and approach that sets Williams apart, which Santa Clara head coach Herb Sendek believes ultimately led to his rise up the draft boards over the past two months.

“It wasn’t like Jalen wasn’t a lottery choice when the preliminary design process began,” said Senderk. “He was always a lottery winner and through this process teams discovered that.”

During his time at Santa Clara, many NBA scouts failed to get to know Williams, understand him as a person, and his take on the game. It took months to draft before he really got a fair chance to prove himself.

“Before the design process started, the best they could see was on TV, on the sidelines at a game, or in the movies,” Senderk told Forbes. “But through the design process, he was brought into more intimate settings with teams, and I think that process of becoming intimate is very favorable for Jalen.”

Presti and Senderk’s relationship dates back to when he was coaching former Thunder draftee James Harden in Arizona State. During the preliminary draft process, these two bonded and began discussing Williams as a person and as a player.

Not only does Williams’ skill on the pitch perfectly match what Oklahoma City is building, but his personality is exactly what the Thunder want in their players.

Sendek shared his thoughts on Williams as a person and some of the things he shared with Presti on their first phone call.

“It’s difficult to describe Jalen in just a few sentences,” said the former Williams coach. “He is a great personality with a wonderful spirit and a wonderful heart. I wouldn’t be able to say enough good things about the kind of person he is. He has that charisma, that zest for life that just oozes out, and that’s what draws people in.”

This feisty, charismatic personality helped Williams become the team’s leader and a key contributor to the Broncos’ 21-12 record during his senior season in college. That will also make him a fan favorite in Oklahoma City.

Williams plans to be an immediate player for the Thunder, but also one of the funniest off the court. In a small market with a real sense of community, Williams fits in perfectly.

As the college season ended, the chances of Williams ending up in the lottery for a team like The Thunder seemed slim. Everything could change for the better now.

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