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2022 NBA Draft: Jalen Williams' game-changing transformation

Before Jalen Williams experienced a growth spurt, his physical appearance often left the same first impression:

“He looked awkward,” Paul Suber, Williams’ longtime trainer, recalled with a laugh. “Take a look at him sideways, you would think he was the letter ‘L.’ ”

“All arms and legs,” said Sam Duane, Williams’ coach at Perry High in Gilbert, Ariz.

Williams, a gangly 5-foot-10 as a high school sophomore, is now a toned 6-foot-6. His arms remain freakishly long — he measured a 7-foot-2.25 wingspan at the NBA Draft Combine in May — but the rest of his body has matured, too.

That transformation has vaulted Williams, 21, from an unheralded high school recruit to a coveted NBA prospect. The Santa Clara product may very well be a lottery pick during Thursday’s 2022 NBA Draft, a thought that seemed unfathomable just a few months ago.

But for Williams, it will mark another example of him invalidating those who wrote him off — while proving himself right.

NBA Draft
Jalen Williams dunks the ball.
USA TODAY Sports

“It’s been something I’ve been thinking about, something that I worked hard to get to,” Williams said of his ascension. “I didn’t really have a surprise. … I’m just kinda big on letting the work speak for itself and doing that whole process.

“Nothing was really shocking.”

Putting in the 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 that you always want to do,” Williams says now.

In middle school, as a member of the I-10 Celtics of the AAU ranks, Williams first put that vision into motion. Suber, the program’s facilitator, didn’t have a team in Williams’ age group, so he moved Williams up a few grades.

Early on, there were blemishes. Williams, small in stature, competed against 7-footers in practice. Sometimes, Suber says, it looked more like volleyball than basketball.

NBA Draft
Jalen Williams as a high school freshman, with Paul Suber.
Paul Suber

“But Jalen figured out how to shoot over them because he’s a smart kid and he loves the game,” Suber said.

That, if anything, became the theme of Williams’ early basketball career. While his physical development lagged, he found ways to circumvent troubles. Under the tutelage of his dad, Ron, Jalen crafted a lights-out jump shot. Playing alongside older teammates throughout middle school, he evolved into a deft passer. And he found a capable training partner in his brother, Cody, now a highly touted high school prospect himself.

Williams had already developed a well-rounded game by the time he spiked to 6-foot-4 entering his senior year of high school.

“That’s when we started realizing, ‘Wow, this kid, he might have it,'” said Padraig O’Brien, an Arizona-based trainer who began 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 of 2017, impressed by his performance at the “Rumble in the Bronx,” a premier youth basketball summer tournament. Other schools followed suit later on: Nevada, Santa Clara and Santa Barbara among them.

But even as Williams excelled — he averaged 23 points per game as a high school junior — high-major interest proved elusive, even locally.

“The joke was, ‘Jalen went for 30, but nobody cares,'” O’Brien said.

None of that fazed Williams, well-known amongst his peers for his ability to tune out any outside noise. In November 2018, the 3-star prospect — and 242nd-ranked recruit in his class, per 247Sports — committed to Santa Clara.

“For whatever reason, he flew under the radar,” Duane said. “A lot of people missed him. But he knew he was good. And he always played with a chip on his shoulder, wanting to show people that he was good.”

Added Suber: “What surprised me was that they weren’t looking at the talent. They were looking at his build. Everyone said, ‘He’s kinda awkward.’ Me being a New Yorker, I’m saying, ‘To hell with the eye test. Are you seeing the results and the way he plays?’ ”

Those close to him noticed not only the way he played, but the way he trained, too.

Lucas Archuleta, a player development coach formerly based in Arizona, remembers Williams showing him a daily schedule during one of their initial sessions. At the time, Williams was simply a high schooler. Yet much to Archuleta’s amazement, the ritual resembled that of a professional basketball player.

“His confidence, he really started to figure it out,” Archuleta said. “Like, ‘Hey, I can probably get to this level if I really work at it.’ ”

Unsurprisingly, Williams arrived at Santa Clara “really prepared,” according to Broncos coach Herb Sendek.

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Jalen Williams before and after: Williams on the I-10 Celtics (l.) and Williams at Santa Clara (r.).
Paul Suber

But those first two collegiate campaigns had their challenges. The pandemic truncated what had been a solid freshman season — Williams started 23 games, averaging 7.7 points per contest — and distorted his sophomore year. Due to local COVID ordinances, Santa Clara faced severe gym-time restrictions and had to sequester in a Santa Cruz hotel just to play its schedule.

In turn, Williams’ production sagged.

“He knew he could get better,” Archuleta said. “And then that summer going into his junior year, it really started to click for him.”

Sendek could see the difference in Santa Clara’s first preseason scrimage. Williams was on the cusp of stardom.

“That’s what Jalen does,” Sendek said. “He comes back and he’s better. He does more things. And that’s been a pretty consistent trademark since I’ve known him.”

Fresh doubters

Now, after earning first-team All-WCC honors and averaging 18 points per game as a junior, Williams is ready to take another step.

And again, he’ll have to quiet a fresh batch of naysayers.

NBA Draft
Jalen Williams drives to the basket.
NBAE via Getty Images

“I think a lot of stuff happens because obviously I went to a smaller school,” Williams said. “That kind of gets played off. 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’re universal throughout where I’m playing.”

At the combine, no one turned more heads than Williams. He wowed with his measurements and dazzled in scrimmages, rising from fringe first-rounder to potential lottery selection, sparking his decision to remain in the draft.

“He’s intriguing,” an NBA scout told The Post regarding Williams. “Where does he end up? I don’t know. I feel like a lot of teams thought he was going to go back for his senior year, and didn’t see him a ton during the season. Then he had the combine he did, so he ended up staying in the draft, so now we have to really dive into this guy.”

Added Sendek: “The NBA community has discovered here this spring what we’ve been accustomed to day in and day out over the last few years.”

Williams said that the reality of his dream is yet to hit him, a few days before the draft. After his selection, he predicted, the emotions will set in.

But he won’t dwell on them long. The next leg of his basketball journey beckons, and he wants to answer the call:

“I’m ready for that next step,” he said.

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