Elliot Williams has played sparingly to this point in the preseason for the Cavaliers. He's seen time in three games, totaling eleven minutes and accumulating one point and three rebounds. That's okay though, because for him to even be in the NBA after all that he's gone through in the past five years is a testament to his immense spirit and incredible resolve.
You see, there's no unluckier player in the NBA right now than Elliot Williams, and that really sucks.
"[Elliot is] a good young man with an opportunity to become an outstanding player."
His story begins in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was a McDonald's All-American among talents like Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and DeMar DeRozan. Despite being considered universally as a five-star recruit, Williams was always probably going to have to go to college for multiple years because he didn't have an NBA-ready body. He ended up choosing to attend Duke after a recruiting battle that included Memphis and Tennessee.
In his freshman season at Duke, Williams flashed his immense potential early in the season but then settled in as a do-it-all role player as the season progressed. He played 17 minutes per game, averaged 4 points, 2 rebounds, an assist and .6 steals per game. The team ended up being a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament that season, and Williams started all three games before the team bowed out to Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen. It was assumed that Williams would be a large contributor to a team returning most of their starters until tragedy struck.
"Elliot is an outstanding student-athlete and a tremendous individual. Our fans and the city of Memphis already know a lot about Elliot because he played his high school career here in Memphis, and we welcome him and his family into the Tiger basketball family."
Williams' mother experienced a setback with her -- unbeknownst to the public at the time -- cancer. He received a hardship waiver from the NCAA to transfer to Memphis, his hometown, in order to help take of her. In the 2009-10 season, Williams blossomed into the player that everyone expected in high school. He finished second in Conference USA in scoring with 17.9 points per game, ninth in assists per game with 3.8, third in TS% at .599, and averaged an insane 7.5 free throws per game. He did all of this while playing twice as much and increasing his usage rate nearly four times over. Basically, Williams single-handedly led Memphis to the bubble of the NCAA tournament until an untimely, last-second, one-point loss to Houston in the first round of their conference tournament knocked them out of the running. Williams' mother's condition improved enough throughout the season that she got to see a few of his late season games. Despite all of these good things, Williams struggled with right knee injuries throughout the season, twice being diagnosed with deep knee bruises. Duke won the national title that season, of course. Had Williams stayed, there seems to be a reasonable chance that he would have started over Nolan Smith, given that he already had beaten Smith and Greg Paulus for the job the season prior.
He declared for the draft and ended up skipping workouts and interviews at the combine due to the knee injuries he had suffered earlier in the season. As something of a do-it-all guard with the ability to initiate offense in a pinch, Williams was considered a combo guard by draft gurus, although he possessed adequate size to play shooting guard full-time. As the draft came closer, Williams began to reject teams' requests for workouts with him, which fueled speculation that he was either very injured or had a promise. Williams, a person who likes to keep his head down, do work, and keep things to himself, decided to not disclose the reasoning for this. In the end, the Blazers selected him in the first round and his professional career began.
"We're very excited to have a player with the character and potential that Elliot has. He's made some pretty big strides in college and now we're looking forward to seeing what he can do at the next level."
-Blazers' Director of College Scouting/Future Interim GM Chad Buchanan
Well, his career kind of began. Williams played in preseason games and was ready for the season when disaster struck. While completing conditioning drills in early November, Williams injured his knee during conditioning drills and required surgery to repair a dislocated right patella. He missed the entire season and rehabbed in order to prepare for the next season.
Just as an aside because I haven't yet mentioned this, Williams has insane leaping ability. Like, this guy can jump out of the gym when he's healthy. As evidence, here is an offseason dunk at Blazers' fan fest before his second year. I'll wait while you pick your jaw up off the floor.
Elliot Williams Dunk - 12.16.2011 FanFest (via pinwheelempire)
He actually got an opportunity to play in 2011-12, where he performed admirably on a per-minute basis despite only playing 149 minutes throughout the season. He has never quite gotten down the three-point jumper, but he displayed the ability to get to the line and score efficiently from both the midrange and around the rim in his limited time. Then, injury struck again as he dislocated his left shoulder in March, forcing him to miss the rest of that season. The final nail in the coffin for Williams' Blazers career seemed to come when he tore his Achilles early last September. With a new general manager in Neil Olshey who had barely seen him in uniform, it was quite obvious that a team trying to contend for the playoffs this year simply didn't have a roster spot for someone who couldn't stay healthy. To add to the injury struggles that Williams' experienced during his time in Portland, his mother passed away on April 3 of this past year. Williams has experienced severe physical injuries in each of the three seasons that he's been in the NBA, and now he must deal for the first time with the emotional hardship of losing his mother who he cared for so deeply. How can someone be expected to overcome all of these things and still carve an NBA career out?
"My mom was a fighter so I'm going to keep fighting. I had similar instances where I've been hurt, but I'm going to keep fighting because I know that's what she wants me to do. That's what she did and I got that fight from my mom. I'm going to keep fighting. I'm going to push through."
Williams said that doctors told him it would be an 11-12 month process in recovering from his Achilles injury, meaning we're just now getting past the point where he should be considered healthy. Even though it seems unlikely that he'll be able to make the Cavs right now, I would think he's a definite candidate to be a midseason pickup for someone as he rehabs (most likely) in the D-League and continues to feel more comfortable with both his body and the emotions of losing his mother.
Despite all of the things that he's been put through, Williams refuses to quit when he'd have more than enough reason to stop. On top of that, he's a good man that makes an impression on every coach or player that he comes in contact with. Earlier last week, Bill Barnwell of Grantland wrote about giving a player a chance to try his career over in an imaginary time machine, using Carson Palmer as an example. I can't think of a better player in the NBA to compare this to than Williams. Through things entirely out of his control -- freak injuries, his mother becoming ill and eventually passing away -- Williams has had a career that has never been able to get off of the ground. For such a high-character individual to have this many setbacks, it's not only disappointing but it's also downright disheartening how unlucky he has been.
Elliot Williams deserves a chance from someone to have the career he deserved, and if that's not reason enough to root for somebody, I don't know what is.