November 27, 2009 8:59:00 AM
Latavious Williams'' road to the NBA will begin tonight.
The former Starkville High School standout will tip off his professional basketball career at 7 tonight when his NBA D-League Tulsa 66ers play host to the Utah Flash.
Williams was the first of eight players Tulsa selected Nov. 5 in the D-League draft. He went through training camp and scored 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a preseason loss to the Iowa Energy and is ready to take his first step toward realizing a dream.
"This is just the next step," Williams said earlier this week. "Now I am not playing against high school or college players. I am playing against players who used to play in the NBA and I am playing against better players. I feel like this will help me get better by playing people better than me."
Williams, 19, made history earlier this month when the 66ers selected him in the D-League draft. The pick attracted national attention and he was mentioned on the ESPN show Pardon The Interruption (PTI) because he is the first player to jump from high school to the D-League.
The Tulsa World newspaper, which covers the 66ers, listed "What can Williams do?" as one of four "What to Watch" points for the 2009-10 season.
A lot of people are wondering what the former Starkville High School standout will do. Rivals.com rated Williams the No. 17 overall high school player last year.
As a senior at Starkville High, Williams averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds per game as a forward/center. He averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds and led Humble Christian Life Center, a prep school in Humble, Texas, to a 36-2 record and a championship last season.
In May, Williams signed scholarship papers to play basketball at the University of Memphis. He told The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) he felt about 75 percent sure he''d qualify next season and was taking extra classes at Humble Christian Life Center "a couple weeks" and then enroll in summer school at Memphis.
But Williams backed out of his commitment to Memphis, and reports indicated Williams was interested in playing professional basketball overseas, possibly in China.
But Williams said earlier this week that none of those options were better than playing in the D-League, which is why he opted to stay in the United States. He said he hasn''t thought about that fact that he is the first player to jump from high school to the D-League.
Instead, he is focused on improving his game to earn a shot to play in the NBA.
"Basketball is basketball, and I just have to get out there and play hard and do well and everything will go good," Williams said. "I just go out and play ball."
Williams said he was in the gym working out when he received a phone call informing him the 66ers had drafted him. He said he has been in Oklahoma for the past three weeks preparing for the start of the season. He said if everything goes well he expects to be ready and to come out in the 2010 NBA draft.
Williams said he is confident an NBA team will draft him next year if he continues to work hard and he performs well this season in the D-League.
"You''re never too good at this or that," Williams said. "I have to improve my ballhandling, my jump shot, everything."
Tulsa 66ers coach Nate Tibbetts said the team, which is owned by the NBA''s Oklahoma City Thunder, liked Williams'' potential and liked the information it received about him when it did its research. He said the team''s goal is to develop players for the NBA, and he said the 66ers believe Williams is worth taking a chance on.
"This is a huge jump for him," said Tibbetts, who is in his first season as coach of the 66ers. "There hasn''t been anybody who has done this. We just talk to him about getting better every day. We''re trying to help him learn how to be a pro. The biggest thing (for him) is figuring how hard he has to play all of the time."
Tibbetts spent the past four seasons -- the past two as head coach -- with the D-League''s Sioux Falls Skyforce.
He also has coaching experience as an assistant at the University of Sioux Falls, an NAIA Division II school. He played basketball at South Dakota.
Tibbetts said Williams has "done a good job" making the transition from high school to professional basketball. He said he showed in the preseason game against Iowa that some things come easy to him, but he also said Williams knows he has a lot of work to do to realize his goal.
Tibbetts said a team in the NBA can''t call up Williams this year, and agrees Williams should have a goal to be drafted next year.
"He really is a good athlete and a great kid," Tibbetts said. "He wants to learn and I can see his potential. He definitely has special skills as far as athletic abilities go. He is just learning how to be a basketball player."
The NBA Development League first operated with the title of National Basketball Development League (NBDL) from its inception in 2001 to the summer of 2005. The name was then changed to NBA D-League to reflect the new and close affiliation with the NBA and its professional teams.
The goal of the 17-team league, which has teams from Maine to California, is to develop players for an opportunity to sign with NBA teams. The D-League teams will play a 50-game regular season that will conclude April 11, followed by league playoffs.
The 66ers had a 14-player roster in training camp, which included two players -- center Byron Mullens (Ohio State) and guard Kyle Weaver (Washington State) -- assigned to them by the NBA''s Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder are affiliated with the 66ers.
The 11-player roster that will begin the season includes former Arizona guard Mustafa Shakur.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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