C.J. Williams is one of the most positive, polite professional athletes I’ve ever shared a voice memo with. He’s got the swagger, confidence and deadly three-point jumper on the court but once the final buzzer sounds he’s taking photos and signing autographs and after a game earlier this season, he even sang ‘Happy Birthday!’ to a young Texas Legends fan.
Named Cape Fear Region Player of the Year by the Fayetteville Observer his senior year, Williams averaged 15.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists and led his Jack Britt High School team to a 27-5 record and the state semifinals. Basketball has been a part of his life since day one. Or more specifically, year one.
“It’s something I’ve always played. I actually have a picture of when I was like one year old. I have a video game controller in my hand and a basketball between my legs. I’ve always loved the game, I’ve always wanted to learn and I’ve always tried to emulate things I saw on TV. It’s been something that I’ve done basically my whole life. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without basketball.”
He’s started 28 of 39 games as of March 6th for Coach Bob MacKinnon’s team. Williams actually played for MacKinnon in the 2013-2014 season when both were members of the Los Angeles D-Fenders, D-League affiliate of the Lakers.
“The first time I didn’t know what to expect,” Williams recalls. “I had worked out with him a few times and I knew he was a hard-nosed, tough guy who demands a lot out of his players. But I didn’t know exactly what he expected out of me. To be honest, to start that season out I wasn’t getting much playing time. It was a little struggle for me at first. But then some guys moved on and my opportunity came and I was able to take advantage of it. From then on it was smooth sailing for the rest of the season.”
Three years later, Williams and MacKinnon celebrated a reunion in Frisco with the Dallas Mavericks’ affiliate. After spending training camp with the Mavs, the 27-year old was signed by the team’s affiliated club. A new team in a new city halfway across the country, but the same coach.
“The second time around I kind of felt he was going to treat me the same way, but it was actually a little different. I had a talk with him and having had played with him before and knowing what the D-League is really meant for, he expected a lot more out of me. It took me some time to understand what he meant by that. I feel that I’ve got an understanding now and I’m going to continue to try to lead by example as well as be vocal at the same time for the team.”
Born and raised in Fayetteville, the North Carolina native was actually considering out-of-state options for college ball before a very important second opinion. “It was a tough decision. I had a couple other schools on my list: Virginia Tech and Clemson. My mom always loved N.C. State and that kind of, not really drove me to play there, but it helped me to take a serious look at that school instead of overlooking it. I never considered that school at first, but it made me take a good look and see what it was all about.”
In his senior season with the Wolfpack, Williams averaged 10.6 points and helped N.C. State reach their first tournament appearance since 2006 and first Sweet Sixteen since 2005. “Being able to go to the Sweet Sixteen, not a lot of guys can say that. Having never been to the NCAA Tournament and then when I did go, it was so special. Going from being one of the last teams announced to the Sweet 16, I wouldn’t change it for anything. I love how it happened. I’m grateful for Coach (Mark) Gottfried giving us the opportunity to get there.”
Williams says instead of focusing on his N.C. State team’s Cinderella status, know that you’ve earned the chance to compete. “It’s more about just being confident in yourself.”
“Being confident in what you’ve been doing your whole life. Most guys at this time in college have been playing basketball for over 15 years. It’s just something that you have to tell yourself like ‘look, you belong here.’ It’s not like you didn’t put the work in. It’s definitely some pressure in certain cases but not so much pressure that you feel like you’re playing against all odds. You know you belong here, you know you earned your right to play in the tournament. You earned your right to get a chance to win a couple games. You just play with that thought process and everything works out.”
Williams decided to play overseas after finishing college ball. His first tour of duty took him to the island country of the Republic of Cyprus to play for ETHA Engomis. Aside from his two stints in the NBA D-League, he’s also played internationally for Giorgio Tesi Group Pistoia (Italy) and JDA Dijon Basket (France).
“Being from North Carolina, when I went to North Carolina State I was away from home but I wasn’t. I could go home whenever I wanted to. But at this point, it had to be planned out and scheduled. It was like a nine hour flight. It was a little different from that aspect. It was also a good experience, it made me mature a lot because I understood what it meant to be a professional basketball player and what it meant to be an adult. I was just grateful for the opportunity. Learning a different style of basketball helped a lot, too. I think that definitely would help mold my career to what it is now, to be somewhat successful and strive to be better.”
Whether it’s Wolfpack red or Legends blue, C.J. has worn the number 21 for as long as he can remember, and for a pair of very different yet poignant reasons. “It started out as, my favorite player at the time when I first decided to pick a number was Larry Hughes of the Philadelphia 76ers. He was wearing number 21 at the time and I really liked his game. The coincidence part of it was he was my favorite player and, I’m a Christian, so three stands for the Holy Trinity and the number seven stands for perfection in front of God. Multiply those two together and you get 21 and that has stuck with me. There’s definitely some significance to it for me.”
The second-year D-Leaguer is no sophomore to pro basketball. This is year five of his career and the goal remains the same as any player alongside or opposing him: the NBA. “Being my second time around (in the D-League), one of the biggest things you can do is control what you can control. As far as a call-up and stuff like that, that’s out of your control because that’s a decision that the GMs, the owners and the coaches have to make at the NBA level. I can’t control that. The thing I can control is going out, playing hard every night, working my butt off to continue to perfect my craft and then let my game speak for itself. I can’t worry about what other people think of me. You can’t worry about trying to play for a call-up. I just have to play my game and if a team likes me they like me and that’ll be a blessing in God’s eyes.”
Williams is averaging 13.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game so far this season. Of major note is his 42 percent three-point shooting. He’s also posting a steal and block a night. You can never have enough shooting and odds are, as teams discover that Williams’ jumper is consistently on and he’s constantly finding ways to one-up the prior game’s display, he’ll be bound for the NBA. After our interview, he was off to the gym to shoot around. It’s what he’s always loved and it’s what he’ll keep on doing.