One would think Lou Williams is having the time of his life. The veteran guard has set off his 13th year in the NBA with a stat line of career bests. Mixed in among the 28 games he has played this season for the Clippers, Williams has put 42 points on the Lakers; 35 points and seven rebounds on the Thunder; 35 points, eight assists and a game-winning shot on the Wizards; and a double-double on the Wolves. Problem is, most of his best outings this season have ended in losses, which happens to teams that see players like Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley and others miss significant time with injuries.
"It's difficult when you have the type of year that I've started off with and not get a lot of success out of it," Williams tells B/R via phone from his Los Angeles home. "We have four starters out and we're relying a lot on younger players … but this team was built to be a playoff contender."
Although the Clippers currently find themselves 10th in the West, Williams is making an intriguing case to be considered for his first All-Star selection. The 31-year-old's game is in Benjamin Button mode. He has never looked quicker, no matter if he's being defended by an All-Star or a marquee rookie. And he's ticking off more assists than he ever has as well as averaging a career-best 19.9 points per game in becoming the Clippers' de facto No. 1 option, at least temporarily. "As I get older I'm seeing the game clearer," Williams says. "I don't really focus on the guy that's defending me. At this point, I kind of know where I'm gonna score. There's just certain spots where if you let me get to I'm just going to have success."
With Griffin out almost two months and the Lakers in an identity crisis, an argument can be made the best basketball player currently playing in Los Angeles is Williams. But he isn't hearing any of that talk. "It's just business as usual [for me]," Williams says. "Once you start going out putting expectation levels on yourself, you lose the concept of trying to win the game. You get into a mode of just trying to do you. I've never played like that."
If there is one person who isn't surprised by Williams' late-career renaissance, it's his high school coach, Roger Fleetwood. Within the first 10 minutes of watching Williams scrimmage as an 8th grader, the former South Gwinnett men's basketball coach knew the youngster was ready to play varsity. Then 5'10", Williams had a vertical and an IQ that belied his age, but those attributes weren't his primary selling points.
"He shook my hand and looked me in the eye like a man, and not like a dead fish like most 8th graders," Fleetwood tells B/R. "Some guys are physically ready to play as a freshman, but not mentally ready. That told me a lot about his confidence."
In Williams' first varsity game as a freshman, he scored 28 points, 14 of them in a fourth-quarter comeback. That year, he averaged 26 points and Gwinnett went 29-3. As a sophomore, he was named team captain. By his junior year, he led the Comets to a state championship. He was named the state's Mr. Basketball his senior year, which was highlighted by a 35-point performance to help hand Kevin Durant and Ty Lawson's Oak Hill Academy goliath its first loss of the season.
Fleetwood was surprised when Williams, who passed on college to go straight to the NBA, fell to the second round of the 2005 draft. But Williams was a raw 18-year-old and had only grown two inches since his freshman year. Nonetheless, the Sixers, without a first-round draft pick that year, used their first selection on the skinny scorer from Atlanta's suburbs.
The low draft slot turned out to be fortuitous. The Sixers negotiated an almost developmental deal that secured Williams a three-year guaranteed contract. After all, with Allen Iverson running Philadelphia, there wasn't a wealth of minutes at the guard position. "I had the opportunity to grow and learn and not worry about being kicked out of the league if I didn't reach my potential right away," Williams says. "If I went to college I'm not sure I get that deal."
For three years, he sat on the bench behind Iverson, learning how someone can perform wonders in the NBA no matter their size. Veteran Kevin Ollie took him under his wing and taught him how to be a professional on and off the floor. The result was an egoless Swiss Army pro who developed a diverse platter of skills in order to fit onto any roster regardless of teammates or depth chart. "I was raised in the NBA," says Williams, who was only nine years old when his father died. "I've seen some guys stay and I've seen a lot go. I've watched James Harden be a rival of mine for Sixth Man of the Year to an MVP candidate. For me to have staying power and still playing at the level that I am means a lot."
Williams' stock remained an asset to any bench, where he has made his home in the NBA. In only two seasons (2009-10 and 2015-16) has Williams started more than nine games. "He accepted years as a sixth man because they were playing him in the fourth quarter, when the game counted," Fleetwood says. "If you go look back at his days as a Sixer, in Atlanta or Toronto, he played the end of the second quarter and most of the fourth. He's just a winner."
His professionalism finally paid off in 2014-15 when he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award by helping Toronto to a 49-win season with a 15.5-point scoring average. Drake even referenced Williams in his song "6 Man", noting Williams was a consummate sixth man as well as the nucleus of a polyamorous relationship with the mother of his two children, Ashley Henderson, and his girlfriend, Rece Mitchell. "It was a cool cultural moment," says a smiling Williams, who is currently only involved with Mitchell. "We made a bunch of money off it. The song and the talk drove prices up. Everybody is cool."
Williams appeared to have found the sweet spot of his career in T-Dot. That was, until the Raptors were swept in the first round of the playoffs and began reassessing. But with free agency beckoning, Williams didn't want to wait for the Raptors to decide on their plans. "They asked me to be patient, but I really didn't want to be patient," he says. "I wanted somebody that wanted me right away."
As it turned out, the Lakers did. But after his first season in L.A., he informed the team that its rebuilding plan didn't fit with his desire to return to the playoffs. So he was bounced to Houston, where he played with future Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon and the MVP runner-up, James Harden. Unfortunately for Williams, in the NBA, 15 points per game off the bench is premium trade stock, so the Rockets added him in last summer's swap for Chris Paul.
The Houston exit was the only trade in Williams' career he disliked. "I saw the potential in that group moving forward," he says. "I thought that was somewhere I was going to be. To go right back [to L.A.] was kind of disappointing."
Since returning to Los Angeles as a Laker and now a Clipper, Williams has played with a wisdom that only spending time with six different organizations can impart. He's more confident and, having played off the bench for so many years, appears fresher physically. He was allowed to pace himself, preserve his body and mature mentally.
"Lou isn't the biggest guy, not the faster and he can't jump the highest," says DeMar DeRozan, who played with Williams in Toronto and refers to him as "a brother." "But he carries himself with the confidence of a Michael Jordan. He doesn't back down from anything or anybody. What makes him special is his ability to live in the biggest moments and make it look effortless."
Says Clippers coach Doc Rivers: "We call these certain guys—him, Paul Pierce, Jamal Crawford—professional scorers. [Lou] does it in every way. You can't send him left because he's deadly going that way. So the whole league is sending him right, and Lou is loving it. The key for me is to just stay out of his way."