The excitement level in the Air Canada Centre is palpable when Lou Williams gets the ball for the Raptors.
Fans eagerly anticipate his patented move, a couple dribbles to his left, a three-pointer let fly, the excitement building as it tracks toward the basket.
They know the Raptors guard — named Tuesday as the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year — as a deadly shooter, a long-distance marksman of extraordinary skill.
They will perhaps be surprised, then, to learn how his high school coach used him, the skills they exploited when the 28-year-old Williams was a South Gwinnett, Ga., teenager.
“We started every game with a dunk play just to intimidate the other team,” Roger Fleetwood, who coached Williams in high school, said Monday after a ceremony honouring the Toronto guard.
“Oak Hill (a prestigious U.S. prep school program); we’re playing (NBA stars) Kevin Durant and Ty Lawson and we started with a dunk play against them for him.”
The Raptors’ Lou Williams shows off the trophy he won Monday as the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Daugter Zoe certainly seems intrigued by her dad’s new hardware.
That Williams has come this far from that point, from having re-made his game to a more grounded style after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament more than two years ago, made Tuesday’s honour all the more special.
He may not be a high-flyer any more but he is a more complete player and now has the recognition to go with it.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to have the foot speed I once had, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to jump as high, but it taught me to be smarter,” Williams said of his rehab time after the injury suffered 39 games into his first season with his hometown Atlanta Hawks. “I worked on different parts of my game. This year is probably the most three-pointers I’ve taken in my career.
“To really be able to evolve and change my game, to win this award is very gratifying.”
But not in the least surprising to those who know him best.
“I knew he would come back, I knew what’s inside him, I knew what drives him,” said Fleetwood. “I knew he would do what he needed to do to get back to where he wanted to be.”
That knowledge was gleaned during morning commutes to high school. Williams would cadge a ride every day from his coach and the conversations were wide-ranging. Williams said Fleetwood taught him about being a leader as much as being an athlete, being a man instead of just a player.
“We’d talk about everything from basketball to girls to school to life. It was a life lesson every day.”
In just a year with the Raptors — president and general manager Masai Ujiri pried him away from Atlanta last summer for John Salmons in one of the great heists in franchise history — not only has Williams captured the hearts of the fans, he’s become one of the most popular players among teammates as well.
Williams will be a free agent in July but has expressed interest in returning to Toronto.
“One thing he brought to the table for us was a quiet leadership that I didn’t know he had,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He knows when he wants to go hard, he knows how to go hard but also he knew how to talk to his teammates, he knew how to motivate his teammates.”
How big was his impact with his teammates? Quite aside from what he brought to the floor, instant offence in a reserve role that allowed him to average a career-best average of 15.5 points per game while taking a load of offensive pressure off, he was a locker room hit.
DeMar DeRozan called him “the coolest dude in the world” and the popular recording artist Drake even mentioned Williams in one of his songs.
Williams appreciates the praise and is just thankful he was able to resurrect his career here.
“I’m quiet, I mind my business and I just come to work every day,” he said. “For (DeRozan) to say that about me, I’m just grateful for it.
“I never get too high, I never get too low, because at any minute things could change. I felt like I could have been the Sixth Man before and it didn’t happen. I thought I was off to a great start in Atlanta and I tore my ACL so I jus learned over the years to just stay on an even keel and when something is set in stone for you to be excited about, then you relish the moment.”