Shelden Williams turning heads with his solid play

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When he signed, people scratched their heads. The Celtics had already penned Rasheed Wallace to a deal and would soon resign Glen "Big Baby" Davis. What did they need Shelden Williams for?

To most NBA fans, Williams had already been labeled a bust. He had been the fifth pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, but had never lived up to his college reputation during brief stints in Atlanta and Sacramento. He was still a very good rebounder, but Williams couldn't find enough time on the court to produce anywhere near the rate a fifth pick is supposed to. Even playing for bad teams, Williams toiled on the bench.

Once upon a time, he had been a star for one of college basketball's darling programs, on national television every night and producing every game. He was the "Landlord", aptly named for owning the paint, and had won two Defensive Player of the Year awards during his time with the Duke Blue Devils. Four years after Shelden began his college basketball career, he ended it with 1,859 points and 1,217 rebounds.

Then he was drafted into the NBA, and all of a sudden everything changed. The bright lights of national television were traded for dull regional coverage, and Shelden's personal stardom was traded for a whole bunch of time on the bench. And his nickname? They might as well have changed it to "The Benchlord".

While everybody else was scratching their heads over the Williams signing, I didn't know what to think. With 'Sheed in the fold and Big Baby soon to be, I didn't see how the Celtics needed him. I didn't know how Williams fit into the Celtics' plans, and I certainly didn't expect him to see much playing time. After all, he couldn't find the court in Atlanta or Sacramento -- why would things be any different in Boston?

At the same time, I remembered Shelden from college. You see, I'm a Duke fan. And not just your run-of-the-mill Duke fan who might watch the Blue Devils when they're on T.V. I'm the type of Duke fan who watches Syracuse football this year just to see Greg Paulus play quarterback. You could say I'm a little bit obsessed.

So I remembered Shelden at his best. I remembered his game-changing blocks and tough rebounds. I remembered the way he was never afraid to throw his body around and, above all, his consistency. Shelden was always a guy you could count on to deliver, somewhere around 15 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks every single game.

When Shelden was a senior, he played his last college game against Glen Davis and the L.S.U. Tigers. I was in prep school at the time, and the game coincided with our dreaded study hall. During study hall, which happened every night of the week, we were locked in our rooms for two hours. We weren't allowed to watch T.V., we weren't allowed to play video games, we weren't allowed to leave our rooms, and there were no exceptions. But my Duke Blue Devils were playing in the NCAA tournament, so I had to figure out a way to make sure "no exceptions" didn't apply to me.

I snuck out of my room and into my dorm head's apartment. He was gone for the night, so I knew I'd be safe in his room. I might have been breaking and entering, but what did I care? There was a chance it was Shelden and J.J.'s final collegiate game.

As it turned out, it was, but not because of Shelden. While J.J. was compiling only 11 points on putrid 3-18 shooting, Williams was busy getting the best of a talented frontcourt consisting of Big Baby and Tyrus Thomas. Duke lost 62-54, but I wouldn't soon forget Williams' gigantic effort. When his team needed him the most, Shelden outplayed two highly-touted players and was the most dominant player on the court. It wasn't enough for the win, but it was enough for me to understand Shelden's importance in everything Duke did... as if I hadn't already.

Still, I didn't expect much when Shelden signed with Boston. I didn't expect his career to suddenly turn around just because he was wearing a new jersey. He was a bust, and that was that. I still loved him from his college days, but I never expected Williams to be of much help to my Celtics.

Then, a day before the season, Glen Davis went down with an injury, and Williams was pressed into service. I was still skeptical. If Williams couldn't perform for the Kings and Hawks, I didn't think he would for the Celtics either. He played 13 minutes the first game, and his stats were underwhelming; 4 points and 3 rebounds are nothing to write home about. But sometimes stats don't tell the whole story. Williams threw his body around that day, and did all the dirty work. He wasn't spectacular, but he was solid. And that's all the Celtics needed from him.

The next night, it was more of the same. This time, Williams ended up with better stats, but the way he played was the same. He was just solid. Nothing flashy, nothing spectacular, but as solid as it gets.

Now, five games into the season, we know what to expect from Shelden Williams. There will be some nights when his stats are better than others, but he'll provide the same effort every night. Just like he did in college, Shelden is playing with consistency, passion, and confidence. He bangs down low, gets to the line, and pulls in plenty of rebounds. Shelden won't ever be a star, but he sure has been dependable, hasn't he?

Williams may never live up to his billing coming out of college, as the fifth overall draft pick, and he may never reach the expectations certain people had for him after his storied Duke career. He might even be right back on the bench once Davis comes back.

But don't make the same mistake I made.

Don't doubt that Shelden Williams can still play.


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