I didn't believe it when I first heard the chatter last season.
Rodney Williams? NBA? Lottery?
Williams, Minnesota's sophomore small forward, is a special talent. The former Robbinsdale Cooper star's leaping ability, athleticism and length all add up to a future NBA contract. Potentially.
(Let's pause for a moment and observe the ridiculosity ... you too will make up a word once you see this .. of Williams's hops ...)
More and more NBA-types believe Williams will get picked up in the first round of the 2011 draft. Some are calling him a lottery pick.
If Williams steps up this season on both ends of the floor and the buzz builds through the 2010-11 campaign, I highly doubt he'll return for his junior year.
It's early. I know.
But I'm just a messenger.
"Williams may be the biggest athletic freak of the group. He's a jump-out-of-the-gym athlete who started off with a couple of big games as a freshman before being benched for most of the season by Tubby Smith.
"I'm not sure what kind of player he is, but if you want me to just give you a name based on pure raw potential, Williams is the guy," another scout said. "I watched him early and I thought, 'Wow.' Now Tubby isn't going to let him play the way he wants to play and that will probably hurt his production. But he's a special physical specimen. He's a crazy athlete, flies up and down the floor and he's got a little jumper too. In Tubby's halfcourt game, he's pretty limited until he figures out how to create his own shot. But let him run and ... wow.""
I think Williams has the assets to build on last season and end 2010-11 as one of the nation's top NBA prospects. But there's also a chance that Williams will struggle and the hype will die.
There are reasons to believe both possibilities.
Rodney Williams will be a first-round pick in 2011 ...
Last year, I had a conversation with former Ohio State star and current Big Ten analyst Jim Jackson about the difference between today's NBA and the one he entered in 1997.
"Potential," he said. Jackson said players were drafted because of what they'd accomplished in the late '90s. Now, they're drafted largely because of their potential and not because they've been successful throughout a lengthy college career.
That's why former Villanova star Scottie Reynolds, a consensus All-America last season, wasn't drafted but former Kentucky reserve center Daniel Orton, who averaged 3.4 points per game for the Wildcats, went 29th to the Magic.
NBA execs tend to get blinded by the "What if?" factor, while ignoring Janet Jackson's mantra: "What have you done for me lately?"
So the Ortons of the world get guaranteed NBA contracts, while former All-America players like Reynolds end up in the second division of Italy's pro league.
Back to Williams. His potential might be irresistible next June. And he only needs one NBA exec to fall for him.
(If Williams played football, he'd be at the top of Al Davis' draft board right now.)
He's 6-7 with a 7-footer's wingspan. That combined with his athleticism suggests that he might grow into a player who can defend point guards, wings and small forwards at the next level.
Plus, the NBA is a run-and-gun league, perfectly suited for a leaper like Williams. On a fast break, you either foul him or he dunks on you ...
An NBA squad can hide Williams on a bench for a few years and give him time to pack on some muscle and learn more about the game.
Players without his skills get drafted every year. So why not Williams?
Rodney Williams will not be a first-round pick in 2011
I watched Williams play a few times at Robbinsdale Cooper.
It wasn't fair. High school kids trying to keep a guy with Vince Carter's springs away from the rim. Pointless.
But during his senior year, Cooper faced Benilde St. Margaret's. Benilde boxed him out. The Red Knights pushed him away from the rim. And Williams looked a little lost on the perimeter as he tried to find different ways to score.
In high school, few teams challenged Williams to "create his own shot." And that's one of the challenges he had last season.
The Big Ten's interior players won't let him get close to the rim without a fight. So he has to establish a better midrange game. But he also to improve off the dribble before he's equipped to play in the NBA.
Whether it was a symptom of Smith's system or freshman nerves, Williams rarely looked comfortable dribbling the floor during his first year, which limited his shot selection. If he didn't see a clear path to the basket or an opportunity for a putback dunk, he often took threes and rarely tried to penetrate and get to the rim a different way.
Additional experience will help. Like most sophomores, Williams is still learning the game.
He's developing. Smith said he expects Williams to lead the Gophers in rebounding this season. And NBA scouts clearly anticipate big things.
But Williams averaged 4.4. points per game last season. He hit 54 percent of his free throws. Smith didn't really play the then-freshman beyond that surprising three-game stretch at the start of last season.
But if you're a future lottery pick/top NBA prospect, shouldn't you play major minutes for a squad that went 9-9 in the Big Ten and failed to get out of the opening round of the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row?
I'm not knocking Williams, who did more than a lot of freshmen in his first year.
But he's raw. In Minnesota's three exhibitions in Canada earlier this month, Williams averaged 6.6 points in 25 minutes. He hit 40 percent of his shots (8-for-20).
Huge strides are certainly possible, but he has a lot of work to do before he hears David Stern call him up to the podium at Madison Square Garden next summer.
Conclusion: As Minnesota's only experienced small forward, Williams will play early and often for the Gophers. He'll get every opportunity to shine. At the start of the last season, he showcased his skills but didn't get a chance to really prove himself after that.
That won't be the case this year. The Gophers need Williams to make an impact on both ends of the floor. With those extra minutes and the confidence that comes with them, I think Williams will increase his scoring and rebounding averages. The result: more NBA buzz.
If Williams fulfills a portion of his potential by season's end, the NBA will certainly call, regardless of some of the in-progress attributes of his game. And if the opportunity is there, I think he'll leave. Wouldn't you?