Deron Williams has agreed to a deal with Besiktas, a club in Turkey, that will give the New Jersey Nets' All-Star point guard something to do this fall and winter if the NBA lockout continues apace. It's hard to overstate how much of a shock this is to even close observers of basketball. The Turkish Basketball League isn't a slouch among its European contemporaries; Fenerbahce is a rising power on the continent, and Efes Pilsen has a long history on European success. But it's not Spain. It's not even Russia, Greece or Italy. And among Turkish clubs, Besiktas is definitely in the second tier, behind Fenerbahce and Efes. It ain't Turkey's version of the Nets, but it ain't the Lakers either.
More importantly, and in larger contribution to the shock involved, Deron Williams is not exactly the prototypical NBA-to-Europe player. He's a legit superstar who has made plenty of money and will make plenty of money; if he doesn't sign a max extension that the Nets will without question offer once the lockout ends, teams will line up to woo Williams when he becomes a free agent in July 2012. He has no historical ties to the Old World; Kobe Bryant spent time in Italy as a child, and the littany of other stars always rumored to be in the European mix (Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker) are largely from Europe. Williams has had plenty of European-born teammates (including Turk Mehmet Okur) and is employed by the NBA's first foreign majority owner (Mikhail Prokhorov), but that's not terribly relevant.
Williams also has four kids, one of them just months old, and has already moved a great distance (from Salt Lake City to Newark) once in the past year. On the list of NBA players totally expected to be a virtual pioneer and move overseas during the 2011 lockout, Williams wouldn't rank at all.
But here he is, on his way to Istanbul ... provided that the NBA doesn't sort out this lockout in the next seven weeks, which they won't, because games aren't at risk until September anyways. But the leading question after Deron-to-Besiktas becomes real immediately shines on the rest of Williams' brethren. Who will follow? Will this ripple lead to a full-scale wave crashing on the old continent's shores?
I'm not so sure.
Williams is in a unique position. Don't discount the impact the Nets' obvious need to treat Williams like a king has on Williams' decision to explore Europe. Of all the players in the NBA who can feel secure that their teams would stand down in this situation, Deron is up high with Dwight Howard, Kobe, LeBron James and Derrick Rose, given circumstances. (Kobe nor LeBron are near free agency, but no team will spurn those guys. Dwight and Rose are up for extensions.) If the Nets tried to block Williams' move, it'd be like playing with matches in a jet fuel lab.
Williams is not making that much money. Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Williams will make $200,000 a month for Besiktas, assuming the NBA lockout doesn't end before the season begins. It sounds like good bread, and to you and I, that is some wonderful lettuce. To Williams? That's an absolutely massive paycut. It's better than the nothing Deron would make if he played at the Y during the lockout -- a lot better -- but it's basically slumming in terms of plying his chosen craft. If the lockout kills the NBA season and Williams spends a full nine months playing for Besiktas in the Eurocup and TBL season, and if you generously adjust for the fact that Besiktas will set Deron up in a nice apartment and will cover taxes ... Williams would still be making less on the season than Travis Outlaw is due per year in the NBA. It's money, it's good money, but it's not pro basketball money for players as good as Williams. Obviously, that didn't deter Deron. It will deter plenty of proud star players.
The market is more limited than you think. Besiktas is an interesting team; if you follow Mark Deeks (@ShamSports) on Twitter, you'll have been enlightened as to how many former players have sued the club for failing to pay up on contracts. But it's noteworthy that this is a Eurocup team that landed Williams ... not a Euroleague team. Euroleague is the highest-level continental competition; Eurocup is one step down. That tells me that Euroleague clubs are going to be a bit more reluctant making a huge effort and cash outlay to land any potential NBA superstars looking to jump the pond. These teams are built like NBA teams are built: with a long-term strategy, with rising young players, with systems and some level of conservatism. That doesn't explain all of the Euroleague teams (the Greek powers, for example, have always seemed more apt to aim for a big splash), but it does account for some of the best.
Real Madrid made a play for Rudy Fernandez last week. But that was for the long-term health of the club, not for a quick jolt of publicity and maybe some victories. The rules will be different for players like Kobe or LeBron; the second Bryant or James indicate even a modest interest in Europe this season, dozens of oligarchs will break out the checkbook. But think about: Deron Williams is taking $3-5 million for a second-tier at best club in Turkey. Deron Williams. Guys like Raymond Felton, Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka have no hope of landing mammoth deals if Deron Williams is settling for this.
Maybe the wave will come -- maybe the NBA just needed someone to chart the new waters and break the belief that American basketball superstars weren't ready to make the leap of faith and comfort required. But it's definitely not a given that Deron's All-Star brothers will wash up on Europe's shores. We'll see.