Highlights of Jason Williams are always the same: An embarrassing crossover, a lob to a high-flying forward, and passes that you still fail to see coming all these years later.
For many he was a basketball icon, active and important during a moment of change for the NBA. As the torch passed from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, so too was the time right for Williams and his style of play.
He finished his 12-year career in the league in the Top 100 all-time for both 3-pointers and assists. Williams came to the fore by battling Shaq at his career’s beginning and crested by completing a championship run with him toward the end.
Yet he never received an All-Star Game bid.
That famous elbow pass? It was in the 2000 NBA Rookie Game. All those assists? 3-pointers? He never led the NBA in any year.
So why didn’t he ever get an All-Star bid? Why was one of the best passers and most memorable players of the 2000s left off the list over and over again?
Allen Iverson’s NBA
Williams played in an era where his skill set made it difficult for him to stand out. His best years came at the peak of Allen Iverson’s NBA, where the top guards in the league were all-timers in their prime including Bryant, Vince Carter, Jason Kidd, Steve Francis, Steve Nash and Stephon Marbury.
The players were not only heads of basketball culture emerging from Michael Jordan’s shadow but pushed higher on their pedestal by the analytics of the day. At least publicly, this was a time when per-game metrics were still seen as king.
Against his competition, this hurt Williams significantly.
His best chances for an NBA All-Star Game appearance would come between the 2002 and 2005 seasons while playing for the Memphis Grizzlies. During this time, Williams averaged 11 points and seven assists per game, shooting 32.4 percent from 3-point range.
There’s no doubt Williams was an impressively solid offensive player, but the highlight reel we have of him in our minds is one largely projected by the light of nostalgia.
Meanwhile, his competition was measurably better as they stood in the limelight each and every season.
In consecutive years, he would lose to Steve Nash on playoff-bound Dallas teams, Gary Payton, and Sam Cassell having career years after age 32, and both Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury burning bright, hot, and quick.
Meanwhile, the mercurial Bryant occupied a guard spot in the West, and a rotating cast of standouts took the other spots: Ray Allen, Manu Ginobili, Tracy McGrady.
Good Years, Bad Teams
Williams was a part of Sacramento’s rise with Rick Adelman and won a championship with Miami in 2006, but the most productive years of his career came during his time in Memphis.
Of the four years he played in Tennessee, half were spent churning out the scoring and eye-popping assist totals for teams that would win 23 and 28 games, respectively.
The Grizzlies matured between the 2003 and 2004 seasons. With more time together as a group and with the first full season under Hubie Brown, Memphis received important contributions from young players like Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Earl Watson and James Posey.
But as the team around him won more games, Williams stood out less and less. At least, when it came to people watching league leaders in important statistical categories.
This was a player averaging nearly 12 points and 12 assists per 100 possessions, but aiding just 11 points and 6.8 assists per game in the box score.
Williams had a definite impact on the offensive side of the floor for both Sacramento and Memphis. So too was he a crucial part of the backcourt during Miami’s championship run with Dwyane Wade and former Western Conference rival Gary Payton in 2006.
But when his teams were in national view, playing when it mattered most, Williams didn’t have the pure numbers to match up. When he did, his teams were an afterthought.
It would be presumptuous to say that Williams was less of a complete player than the guards he was trying to beat out for that elusive All-Star spot at his peak. It might be more accurate to say that he didn’t do anything in any category that pushed him over the top of his competitors.
Payton had more assists. Francis scored more points. Nash shot better from three. What did Jason Williams have?
He wasn’t a lockdown defender, although data suggests his offense-only perception was likely an exaggeration. Williams never led the league in any statistical category he was above-average at.
He ended seasons in the Top 10 for assist percentage and assists per game several times during his career but never notched anything else that might propel him forward.
He wasn’t deadly from 3-point land. He didn’t rack up steals. He turned the ball over an average amount. He didn’t get to the free throw line that often.
When compared to his Western Conference foes, Williams didn’t stand out save for on 11 p.m. SportsCenter highlights.
Ask an NBA fan to list their favorite players from the early 2000s and Williams will inevitably come up. Tell that same fan that Williams never made an All-Star Game and you’ll likely be met with the face of shock.
Viewed within the context of production and direction of the league, it’s believable that Williams missed his share of All-Star Games. Where the story for White Chocolate gets even stranger is that he isn’t viewed in the memories of many as the backbone of an offense. He was.
Yes, Williams had a cultural impact. His Appalachian good looks and streetball style, flashy and often unselfish, made him the perfect addition to a rising NBA brand. He was also a 10-year starter and a reliable point guard.
All-Star? Jason Williams didn’t need to be. What he was, was just as good.