A Conversation with Marcus Williams

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Marcus Williams comes into the season as the forgotten Spur. The Spurs signed him from the Austin Toros on April 8. Marcus Williams was the D-League’s best player at that point. His numbers in March were good, averaging 25 points, 7 boards and 6 assists a game.  But April was something else entirely: 27.5, 10.5, 11.5. After spending the better part of two years with the Austin Toros, Marcus Williams was looking like an NBA player. And strangely enough, the former Arizona small forward was doing his best work as the Toros’ point guard.

That’s where I began a recent conversation with Marcus.

“Well, yeah,” Marcus began. “I played point all through high school and a little during my freshman year of college. Coach Snyder set us down last year and basically said we need to figure out how to get all our best players on the floor together. At the time we had Malik Hairston, DeMarcus Nelson and Dwayne Jones. Coach Q wanted everyone on the floor. I had been there two years and so I told the coach that I knew the offense the best, I knew what he was looking for, and that I could play point.”

“Coach Snyder knew me from my days in Seattle. He said, ‘Alright, let’s give it a shot.’ From there it was easy. I love passing the ball, and we had a bunch of talented guys that made me look good.

Did Marcus think the switch to point was crucial to his eventual contract with San Antonio?

“Well, you know, it took work. I knew the system, but Coach Q and I still had to put in time. We were working together before practice, after practice, on off days.  My growth as a player is 90% Q and 10% me. We worked on a lot of things, especially foot work and how to handle the pick and roll.”

“I think the move to point helped show the Spurs what I was capable of doing. They know that I’m a guy who knows the system. A guy who can play three positions for them. A utility player who can score if they need me to, but who can also handle the ball and make the pass that leads to the scoring pass. And I like to do those things, so it’s a good fit for me.”

Marcus’ knowledge of Gregg Popovich’s system was a major theme of our conversation. It’s a theme that resonates throughout the Spurs’ program, whether in Austin or San Antonio. The Spurs are one of the few NBA teams that own their D-League affiliate. They treat the Toros as a true farm team. The two teams share offensive and defensive schemes. The plays Marcus Williams runs in Austin are the same as those Tony Parker runs in San Antonio.

One would assume that Marcus is entering Spurs training camp with an advantage over other roster hopefuls such as Jack McClinton.

“I wouldn’t want to call it an advantage,” Marcus begins. “I’d say it gives me a good comfort level. I’ll have a better understanding of what’s going on. The Spurs run a lot of stuff off reactions. So having experience in the system, having gone through a Spurs training camp my rookie year, and the work I’ve done with Coach Snyder will help.”

“Playing the point at that level will be something new, but I’ve grown a lot as a person and a player. I’m comfortable with it, and I’m ready.”

Grown as a person? Hmm. Where did that come from?

“Coming out of Arizona I was twenty years old coming into a man’s league. Then when the Spurs released me as a rookie, it was difficult for me. I spent my first year in the D-League–actually, I was called up by the Clippers, but that didn’t work out. That added to the frustration on my end.”

“At the end of the day I had to sit down and figure out how to channel the frustration. For me it meant growing up. I had to learn to be a better teammate. You’ve gotta be a man. Handle the mental stuff, and then handle your business on the court. Going through that has definitely helped out on the court. I’m more focused, more prepared mentally.”

As Marcus was explaining his personal transition, I couldn’t help but remember my time at the predraft camp.  One question I had asked nearly ever player in attendance was whether they had considered the possibility of playing in the D-League. None of them wanted to hear about it, much less speculate what life would look like as a member of the Iowa Energy. I rehearsed this to Marcus, suggesting that guys are ill-prepared for the hard work required to stick in the league. To his mind, this was only half right.

“It’s not because guys are afraid of hard work. Most of the guys will put in the work. But you have to remember, these guys have been stars most of their lives. Going to the D-League is hard for guys to think about because it’s the first time someone will tell them they’re not good enough. And, you know, that is what they’re telling you when they send you to the D-League: ‘You’re not good enough to play in the NBA.'”

“When someone tells you that you’re not good enough, it hits home,” he continued. “It’s probably the first time most guys have ever heard that. That conversation is really tough. Sure, it takes hard work. But the mental part is rough.”

“Coach Pop is good on this. He says that when you tell a guy he’s not good enough, you don’t want him to run from you. Some guys hear ‘you won’t ever be good enough to play’ and other guys hear ‘you’re not ready, yet.’ There is big difference between the guys who hear they’re not good enough and bottle themselves up and the guys who hear it and start to make their way through.”

Throughout our conversation, Marcus spoke glowingly of the D-League, and especially of the Austin Toros. He’s clearly a proponent of the D-League in general, and of the Austin Toros in particular. But he also makes it sound like a miserable experience. What gives?

“It’s definitely a good thing, but I don’t think you’ll ever have guys who’ll dream of playing D-League. But more and more you’ll have guys who realize it’s a big help. It helped me become a better player. It has helped guys like Mike Taylor. Those guys are in the NBA because of their time in the D-League.”

“One thing college kids don’t understand is how hard it is to get to a team and not play. Because most teams don’t play rookies. In the NBA you don’t really practice much after the beginning of the season. And if you’re not good enough to play, that means you’re just sitting around. The coaches are busy, the stars are resting, there isn’t a lot of time for player development. Being in the D-League allows you to keep your confidence up, to play a lot of minutes, and to work on your game.”

“The D-League is a place where doors open for players. I was fortunate. I never had to play for another D-League team other than the Toros. The Spurs are really first class, and that shows up in Austin. Coach Q is terrific. He’s responsible for my growth. I learned more in two years with the Toros than at any other time playing basketball.

If knowledge of the system was one of our conversation’s major themes, Coach Snyder was the other. I asked Marcus to tell me about his relationship to the Toros coach.

“Coach Q is great. We definitely have an understanding.  It’s a struggle to go from college star to the D-League. But Q kind of went through the same stuff after Missouri. It hurt us both, but he had gotten over it. So he was there to help me get through the process. He told me, ‘look, if you’re not willing to move forward, you’re gonna go backwards.’ He had a lot of faith in me on the court, which helped my confidence. Then he took a chance on me at the point guard spot and it worked out well.”

“But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t hard on me. When I started playing point, he was always on me about footwork. Every day before practice he would work with me on ball handling, footwork and how to handle the pick and roll. He was always there. If I had questions, we’d get together for a private session and work on it.”

“There is a big difference between college pick and roll and NBA pick and roll. In college, everyone just hedges. That’s basically the only way the pick and roll is played. But in the NBA there are dozens of coverages. In the NBA you really have to learn about things like the hockey assist–making the pass that leads to the scoring pass. It’s often a simple play, but it takes time to recognize where those passes are. And the pace is so much different than college. People say the NBA is slower, but it’s only slower sometimes. If the shot clock is down to 10 then the NBA feels much more like a quick burst. You don’t really have those changes of pace in college. And, of course, you’ve got a lot of bigs who can cover like guards. Coach Q helped me understand all that.”

At this point in the conversation, I became a little suspicious. Didn’t Marcus have any D-League horror stories? As soon as he heard the question, he began to laugh.

“Sure. We were in Boulder, staying in a dingy inn. It was so cold the water had froze. No showers. And the place was cold. The heat was on, but it didn’t really feel like it. I went to the front desk for three extra blankets, curled up in my sweats, with a few pairs of socks and a hoodie, shakin’ in the bed. That was all before a game.

“There were some rough times. It definitely tests how much you love basketball, I will say that. ”

What does Marcus see for himself this season, now that he’s completed his D-League stint?

“Well the Spurs have changed a lot. Bruce Bowen was my locker-mate in San Antonio. He kind of took me under his wing. He talked to me a lot. Helped me a lot. It was great because he’s been through the same adversity, playing his first few years overseas. He was great. First class player. I wish him luck, but it will be weird not having him there.”

“He definitely epitomized what it meant to play a role. They wanted him to play defense, so he became First League All-Defense. And now he has the jewelry to show for it.”

“But the team has added talent. Last year Tony showed that he is one the best point guards in the league. But he played a lot of minutes. I’d like to help the team by being another guy who can handle the ball. To take some pressure off guys like Tony, Manu and George Hill.”

“When Brent Barry was in San Antonio I loved to play pick up with him. I wish I could shoot half as good as him. But people don’t realize that he has some point skills. He was great in pick up because he’s such a good passer. I’d like to bring that to the team this year. I want to be a guy who helps everyone stay involved.”

But is this what Popovich is expecting of Williams?

“I had a chance to talk with Pop after the season. I asked what I needed to bring to the table in order to make an impact. He told me that no one doubted my ability to make plays on offense, but that I couldn’t be a liability on defense. Being able to defend would get me on the floor.”

“I hurt my wrist a little this summer, and that turned into a blessing in disguise. It gave me an opportunity to work on my lungs and lateral quickness. Pop said I could have turnovers and miss shots, but I had to play defense on every play. Other than that, they just want me to be active and aggressive. They don’t like shy basketball players. They want me to be assertive.”

The bit about lateral quickness caught my attention. Marcus Williams is a 6’7” small forward turned point guard. Does he have the lateral quickness to guard true smalls?

After a long pause he offered this response: “That’s one thing I want to show them. Listen, it opens up playing time for me if they can trust me at three positions. All summer I’ve worked hard at being able to guard three positions. I want to guard Tony in camp; I want to guard Richard Jefferson in camp.”

I switched gears on Marcus. What was it like going into training camp with two other players, Malik Haiston and Ian Mahinmi, who cut their NBA teeth in Austin?

“You know, it’s great. We’ve played a lot of minutes together. And that’s not including all the pick up. There’s a lot of familiarity. And it’s been great…not really a rags to riches story, but a common history. Last year was Malik’s first year in the D-League and my second.  It was cool to watch him grow as a player. As long as I’ve been in San Antonio, I’ve been playing with Ian. It sort of feels like were a rookie class coming from the same college team. It’s not quite the same, because they’ve already made us feel like part of the team, even when we were in Austin. So the three of us just want to come in and help the Spurs succeed.”

And finally, our last talking point. Quin Snyder’s hair. I had to know, does Coach Q apply product during time outs?

“I’m not sure how Coach keeps his hair like that. He just plays with it so much that it stays fluffy. He has some type of special gel. It might be prescription. All my friends and family that have come to games say stuff about his hair. They think he wants to be a movie star.”

  • Sam

    I’m looking forward to this year. I truly hope that the Marcus, Malik Hairston and George Hill get tons of minutes. Run Williams at point, Hairston at SF and Hill at SG. Its gonna be great.

  • Sean

    Great interview Tim.

    I hadn’t realized Marcus had stepped his game up to those numbers last year. Hopefully, he can carry it over with the Spurs.

    OT: watching Tony and France vs Russia right now.
    Tony looks good shooting the 3 ball.

    Made me think if he could consistently shoot the 3 at or near 40% he would be the most unstoppable point guard in the league.

  • Jason S.

    Probably the best basketball interview I’ve ever read. Thank you.

  • to19

    6′ 7″ and able to guard point guards would be huge. imagine the length the spurs defense could have on the court at one time.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    to19,

    Of course, that remains to be seen…

  • http://atxsports.net Andrew A McNeill

    Great stuff, really interesting interview. I love how the Spurs have been running their D-League operations and I look forward to seeing the impact Marcus, Ian and Malik, and future Toros, have on the Spurs over the next several seasons.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Andrew,

    Thanks. We really ought to find a place for you on our link list. You’ve reminded me that that needs updated.

  • LasEspuelas

    You got me all excited about the April numbers but its just an average of two games. Sneaky. A point for you is that he had two playoffs games in April in which he averaged a triple-double as well. That kind of moxie in important situations is impressive.

  • http://www.justyler.blogspot.com JT

    Marcus sounds like a stand-up guy, highly intelligent with the right attitude.

    I can’t wait till late October.

  • Bryan

    That was a great read, Tim. Thanks for keeping Spurs fans plugged in during the down part of the offseason.

    Like Andrew said, the Spurs are doing great work in Austin and it is good to read about the products like Marcus, Malik, and Ian. The Spurs are innovators in the NBA. Just like they were at the forefront at finding talent overseas, they are now at the forefront on player development. Staying ahead of the rest of the league on things like that is what is going to help them stay relevant beyond the Timmy era.

  • http://atxsports.net Andrew A McNeill

    That would be great, I would love to have your sloppy seconds (Wait, what?). In all seriousness, that would be great, I would love the traffic, especially with the quality of readers here.

  • therealkman

    The Bruce effect! If Marcus truly learns the craft of good defense as taught by Bruce Bowen he may be huge surprise next spring. Look Roger and Fin you guys could be the odd men out this year.

  • metalandganja

    fantastic interview and read. thanks so much.

  • Rye

    Agree with the general consensus: excellent interview and read.

    Williams seems like a Spurs type of player: hard working, humble, articulate. I like the fact that he has the versatility to play three positions. Let’s face it, as much as a lot of people like Hairston, if Williams shows he’s a solid defender, he’ll probably play ahead of him, because of his superior offensively ability.

    Even with a strong training camp/pre-season, I doubt Pop places Williams or Hairston ahead of Finley as the backup SF. They may play the odd game while Finley gets the night off, or in Williams case, I suppose he could steal some backup PG minutes from Hill if Hill struggles, but for the most part the following year is when he and Hairston will likely have a true opportunity to crack the rotation.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Rye,

    I think you’re likely correct. My own feeling is that Hairston is shaping into a good basketball player, but, given the prospect of limited minutes, I suspect the Spurs will assign him to the Toros.

    Regarding Williams. I think he has an outside shot of replacing Finley, but Fin is still the odds on favorite. I wouldn’t be surprised if Haislip actually wins the minutes behind Jefferson.

    Marcus’ best chance at minutes might be in back to backs when Pop decides to rest Ginobili and/or Parker. With 17 b2b on schedule, Williams could see good minutes in 25 or 30 contests, plus garbage time in blow outs. But in the Spurs’ playoff and long term interest to find Williams minutes throughout the season.

  • Tim C

    Tim V,

    Awesome interview. Also, I noticed that you bring up the possibility of Haislip playing the 3. This has been murmured among a lot of Spurs fans this offseason, myself included. I was curious if you’ve heard from any of your sources whether the Spurs think he can play the 3. If so, then the current roster seems to make more sense from my perspective. I, too, hope the Marcuses and Hairston get some quality playing time this year.

  • Rye

    Tim,

    Can Haislip actually play the three though? As much as it’s been talked about, and as much as people assume he’ll generally spend his time guarding Nowitzki, West, Odom, Lewis, etc., the reality is those guys play the four. Only Lewis plays some three (Odom, from what I’ve seen, is now strictly a four). What three men would the Spurs want Haislip to guard?

    You’re right about Hairston, though. He has another year of D-League eligibility, unlike any other player on the roster, and with a 15 man, veteran laden roster, I suspect he’ll spend at least part of his season with the Toros.

  • jollyrogerwilco

    Nice job, TV. Love what you got him to open up about. Good questions, nice piece.

  • TrueFan

    I don’t claim to have any special knowledge of Haislip other than his vitals, the clips of him on YouTube, and the few times I saw him play during his earlier stint in the NBA and college. Some of his clips look good, but highlight reels are incredibly misleading. I could put together a highlight reel of Jacque Vaughan’s career that would make him look like a shoo-in for the hall of fame.

    Count me in the camp that is extremely skeptical that Haislip can play the 3 in the NBA…. But even if he can’t, here’s hoping he’s got something else to contribute.

    As a great deal of the other readers know firsthand, when you live outside of Texas and have a full time job, it’s hard enough to keep up with the Spurs, let alone the Toros. Although I was familiar with his name and his stat lines, I didn’t know much of anything about Marcus Williams until now — thanks for the great read, Tim!

  • Nick (Italy)

    Tim,

    Great interview.

    It seems to me that you are skeptical on Marcus Williams’ ability to defend PGs.

    If my impression is right, I definitely agree with you: giving a look at the league today, one realizes that the total number of 6’7” PG is… zero, despite the fact that point forwards are really “en vogue” these days.

    I guess it is because it is simply impossible to guard a guy who’s 5-7 inches shorter than you on the perimeter, no matter how good your lateral speed is. It simply is a reason of legs’ lenght (and handcheck rule). Personally, I can’t remember an effective 6’7” or taller decent NBA PG after Penny in Orlando (but my memory is not that good).

    If I am right, it will be quite evident from day 1 of the training camp that he cannot guard Tony (no question here, right?), as well as any 6 feet point guard and, thus, his playing time during the season will be further limited by such circumstance (focusing on teams lacking a superstar PG, it means no Rockets, no Bucks, no N.Y., no G.S., no Cleveland, no Minnesota).

    So, isn’t it safe to assume he will never be a true PG in the NBA and shift him to the 2 spot again, in a (far less talented) Brandon Roy role?

    Best,

    N

  • vikombe

    This is an extremely interesting and helpful interview. It helps those of us who have not seen much of Marcus Williams game get to know him better and to develop a sense of appreciation for what he and the spurs are trying to achieve with the Austin Toros.

    For the first time the spurs are stacked from 1 through 15. I don’t anyone to be cut including Jack McClinton.

    Throughout the summer I’ve been amazed by the quality and depth of stories on this blog. Kudos

  • Bentley

    He may not be able to guard the points, but it doesn’t mean a 6’7″ guy can’t guard a 6’0′ guy. Trevor Ariza is 6’8″ and he gave Tony Parker(pretty much the fastest PG in the NBA)Bruce Bowen 6’7″ did numbers on other team’s points(most notably Steve Nash)

    Then again you don’t find too many defensive gems like them, and I’m almost certain Marcus Williams isn’t anywhere near that category of defense

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Vikombe,

    Welcome to the land of commenters. And thanks for the kind words.

  • Danny Conner

    Shawn Marion and Grant Hill both have given Tony fits.
    Great article.
    Exciting year to be a Spurs fan.

  • http://myspurslink.blogspot.com Robby

    Tim,

    Great interview, now finally a get to know more about this guy… (you mentioned him to me many times before in our previous conversations)…

    I hope he can crack into the Spurs rotation, I would think his minutes will come either SF or PG postion… as a SF backup he would likely be in the 3rd or 4th (Behind Finley and maybe Hairston) at PG, I agree with Rye if Hill struggles he might have a shot.

    Also, if Pop decides to rest some players on back to backs most probably Duncan/Ginobili/Finley and maybe Parker to a lesser extent. His minutes will come and hopefully he gets comfortable playing in the NBA.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Thanks, Danny. Welcome to 48MoH.

  • mike

    Awesome, very good interview.

  • Zainn

    Nice interview. He will be right behind george hill

  • 09.20.21.50

    Damn, definitely an exciting piece to read, thanks Tim.

    Marcus.. what a great kid, so humble.. and not even ripe yet: 22 years old

    I love our organization.

  • Ruffy

    Great article, Tim.

    I think we’ll see a bit of Marcus this year, and he adds an intriguing twist to what might be the most versatile roster in the league.

  • Nick (Italy)

    Danny, Bentley,

    I liked your examples and they fit great.

    But when I think better about it, it seems to me that the choice to put Ariza, Marion or Hill on Tony has more to do with the total inability of the respective PGs to guard him (Nash may be the worst 1 on 1 defender in the NBA, Fisher is a very bad defender against quick PGs, as showed by the Houston series) than with the desire to match up a 6’8” guy with Tony.

    Can’t have numbers based on the possessions played against such players by Tony, but, for what is worth, I also note that in the match ups against LA and Phoenix this year Tony improved in almost any statistical category, notably FG%, with respect to season averages.

    On the other hand, Bowen actually played great D on a number of much shorter players, but, as Bentley notices, we are talking about one of the 2-3 best perimeter defenders of the last decade.

    In conclusion, probably you are right and I did not consider some relevant exceptions, but I still think the Spurs and the kid are better served having him playing the 2-3 spot and leaving behind the PG experiment.

    However, since guys on the Spurs staff are a tetra zillion times more knowledgable and smarter than me, I guess I will trust ‘em anyway :-)).

    Best,

    N

  • Pok Flied Lice

    Sweeet read
    I like the fact that as soon as the NBA is starting the long defender vs quick guard trend (Shawn Marion vs TP was more like a desperation move from the Suns), we’re on top of it.
    Williams showed such maturation, I think that we have the smartest bench in the league, at least defensively.

  • Bentley

    I can see Marcus becoming a player similar to Shaw Livingston, athletic, tall, and good passing skills, only with more class.

    Nick I agree that Idon’t think that he can guard the point guard spot, but I don’t think that should discourage from him actually playing the position on offense, then on defense there could be some sort of switch, maybe putting hill on the team’s point guard or something like that

  • Rey

    I’m very impressed with Marcus Williams’ answers to the interview. He sounds like a mature team-first player that epitomizes the Spurs’ character. He was not someone who would diss out other people and beat his chest just to point out that he’s the best. His humility is overwhelming.

    Yes, after reading this interview, I’m really hoping that he’d be in the Spurs’ final roster come October, and he’d be given the opportunity to play long.

    “I love passing the ball, and we had a bunch of talented guys that made me look good.” It really sounded so weird to hear it from an up-and-coming player. Usually it’ll be “I dominate, I destroy”but Marcus seemed to be genuine in knowing his role and playing it. He wasn’t the kind of player I’d usually hear about who has this “Messiah Complex,” or someone who feels like he’s the saviour that his team would be desperately needing to get a ring. But he certainly knows that he could be an important part in making the team a very serious contender for the championship.

    Thank you very much for the interview, Tim. I really appreciated how you gave importance to the other members of the Spurs through this article.

  • http://atxsports.net Andrew A McNeill

    I think the key thing that this interview shows, for both player and team, is that there are options. Marcus has the option to play (and possibly defend) three different positions.

    The team has a large number of lineup options. With the age of the squad and the 17 back-to-backs, the team can throw out any number of lineups at any given time.

    Tony Parker twisted his ankle and will miss a couple of games? We’ll start George Hill at the point and Manu at the 2.

    Manu sitting out the second game of a back-to-back and Tony is still injured? We’ll play Marcus Williams at the point during the game and give George some time off-the-ball at the 2.

    Need to go with a small lineup? Tony at the point, George Hill at the 2, Manu at the 3 and Marcus Williams at the 4.

    The main takeaway here is that Marcus has opened up more opportunities for himself to get in the game. The Spurs have the flexibility to adapt to virtually any situation the encounter.

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  • http://bleacherreport.com/users/131880-andres-roberto LiverSpursFan

    just wanted to throw in my two cents here.

    i think coach quinn snyder was a really great college coach and i loved watching his teams at mizzo play. i like how he has adopted the spurs organization as his own but in a lesser degree yet still retains the organizations professionalism. i hope that eventually coach q becomes the spurs coach when pop decides to hang it up and call it a career.

    just wait ’til we start recruiting kids out of high school instead of getting them after they have gone to college and learned how not to play the right way. a natural progression but may never happen considering this countries ties to education.

    food for thought,

    thanks, i love the spurs!

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    LiverSpursFan,

    You might like to read an earlier post called Under the Influence of Jeremy Tyler.

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