Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
It feels a bit odd placing Deron Williams atop a list of important players for a legitimate contender, given his up-and-down season.
He is the same player whose skills were called into question countless times by the media earlier this season as he underperformed and suffered ankle injuries. The Nets played some of their best basketball in January while getting limited minutes from Williams. By the All-Star break, many were wondering if the guard could still spearhead a successful team.
Since that break, he has answered his doubters and captained a Nets team that suddenly looks like a danger to the once presumed Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.
Some of his increased contributions can be quantified. He averaged 13.3 points per game on 45 percent shooting before the All-Star break, compared to 17.5 points on 48 percent since. He scored at least 20 points five times before the break and has already done so six times since.
A lot of his importance to this squad can only be understood by watching him play. He has more energy, more cockiness, two healthy ankles and also a refreshed spirit. He slashes into the lane with a purpose and confidently backs down smaller guards.
He also has been taking key shots for Brooklyn as of late. With the Nets up by two with less than a minute remaining in Miami last Wednesday, he sank a crucial step-back jumper over Mario Chalmers. A week later against the Bobcats, he converted a long two-pointer to give Brooklyn a 100-95 advantage with just 30 seconds to play, effectively ending the game.
In both instances, he matched up in isolation against the opposing point guard, created space with his dribble and knocked down a contested jumper.
These are the types of plays that have gotten Williams to this No. 1 spot. These are the types of plays he'll need to keep making if the Nets are to advance deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Williams was crowned the face of the franchise when he signed a $98 million contract two summers ago. He's been living up to that billing in the past weeks and is without a doubt the Nets' most important player at the moment. The Nets will go as far as "D-Will" takes them.
All statistics from Basketball-Reference.com unless explicitly stated otherwise.