By Henry Abbott
Eleven years ago, in the 1998-1999 season, the NBA featured a veteran big man called Jayson Williams, a blue chip pro prospect at Duke named Jason (later "Jay") Williams, and wild-eyed, over-tattooed rookie point guard called Jason "White Chocolate" Williams, who had "flash-in-the-pan" written all over him.
If someone had told you then that just one of the three would last a decade in the league, and would be starting for the reigning Eastern Conference champions, I'm thinking chocolate would have come in tied for least likely to be the one -- with the big man Williams, who is now 41.
Instead, even though he has already retired once, the small white West Virginian is the NBA's last Jason Williams standing.
The intervening decade has been anything but a coronation. After heady times on a high-flying Kings team, Williams lost a lot of his sizzle (but gained some efficiency) in Memphis, before being Dwyane Wade's shadow on Miami's title team. Eventually, he signed a free-agent contract with the Clippers, before changing his mind and deciding to sit out.
Williams returned to the NBA, as a Magic player, this fall. Today, as Orlando's starting guard, Jameer Nelson, is set to miss four to six weeks after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, Williams is suddenly coach Stan Van Gundy's best option -- ahead of Anthony Johnson, who has played just 25 minutes all year -- to start at point guard.
In about 200 minutes of action this season, Williams has shown improved shooting (his true shooting percentage and 3-point shooting percentage are close to career bests). He is also showing a point guard's selflessness -- his assist rate is higher than it ever was in Miami, while his usage rate -- the rate at which he ends plays himself -- is at an all-time low. And despite all that, he has maintained just enough pizazz to already be the star in some highlight reels from his time in Orlando.
He's famous as one of the NBA's best ball-handlers, but the measure of his success, on this team -- the team that played the NBA's best defense last year -- will come when his team does not have the ball. On Nelson's watch, opposing point guards have been pretty good against the Magic this season. There are early season hints the team may be able to play decent defense when Williams takes his place.
If that trend holds, it'll be hard for Van Gundy to keep Williams out of games for long, even when Nelson returns from this latest setback. The Magic are in heavy rotation on national TV, which means Jason Williams is back in America's living rooms.