ATLANTA -- After getting released from the Lakers last January, Shawne Williams sat around feeling sorry for himself. The former first-round pick was still only 27 years old, but he knew he had blown numerous opportunities. He wondered if an NBA franchise would give him another shot or if it was time to go overseas.
Instead, he swallowed his pride and joined the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the Lakers' NBA Development League team. It was the best move he ever made and it served as the catalyst for a resurgence in Williams's once promising career.
Williams is now starting for the Miami Heat, averaging career highs in points (10.5), rebounds (5.1) and minutes (28.8), while shooting 50 percent from the floor and behind the arc. He is one of the league's most unlikely stories.
"A lot of people were saying, ‘It's over for him.' But I never let nobody dictate that." Williams said before a game against the Hawks earlier in the season. "That's on me and God."
Still, even Williams admits he had doubts. After sitting out the 2012-13 season, he signed with the Lakers a month before training camp with no promise of making the roster. Williams started the season opener, but his minutes and production fluctuated. He lasted only 34 games (11 starts) until the Lakers waived him.
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It was yet another setback for the 6'10 forward whom the Pacers selected with the 17th pick in the 2006 draft following one season at Memphis. He never fit in Indiana and was traded to the Mavericks before the start of the 2008 season. He later played sparingly for the Knicks and Nets and couldn't stay out of trouble. He was arrested multiple times on drug charges.
"The stuff I've been through, I definitely learned from it," Williams said. "It just took a long time. Sometimes I think a lot of stuff I got away with when I was younger just caught up with me when I got older."
Even with his rap sheet, Williams said a few European teams offered him lucrative contracts when the Lakers parted ways with him. He considered those deals, but after talking with longtime agent Happy Walters, Williams headed to the D-Fenders, where he could be seen by NBA scouts.
"It was the most humbling thing for me to just make up my mind up and go to the D-League," Williams said.
Aside from a four-game stint with the Lakers in February, Williams played the rest of the season in the Development League where he had none of the luxuries of his former life. The D-Fenders traveled on buses for games less than 400 miles away. For longer trips, posh charter flights were replaced by commercial airlines in coach class, usually with at least one connection. They stayed in budget hotels and played road games in small towns and tiny gyms. Their home games were held at the Lakers' practice facility with a capacity for only 400 fans. The per diem for meals was $40, less than one-third of the amount in the NBA.
Regardless, Williams's commitment caught the attention of D-Fenders coach Bob MacKinnon.
"I told our guys every day, ‘This guy's a pro. You should emulate how he comes and works at his craft,'" MacKinnon said. "I said, ‘See this guy. This is how you work at it.'"
In 23 games, Williams averaged 20.5 points and 7 rebounds and shot 45.6 percent from the field while making 41.8 percent of his threes. In early April, the D-Fenders lost in double overtime in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The next morning, they flew to Des Moines, Iowa for the season's final game that was played later that night. Williams scored 16 and 24 points, respectively.
"Shawne brought it both games," MacKinnon said. "I think people in the (NBA) saw that and said, ‘Hey, not only is this guy an NBA talent, but he's a professional and he has a professional attitude.' That's what Shawne brought every day."
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Several NBA franchises asked Williams to play on their summer league teams, but he declined. The Heat then called and invited him to a workout with former college teammate Chris Douglas-Roberts and others. During the drills, Williams impressed the Heat, although he was out of shape.
"I ate a little too much," Williams said. "I'm from Memphis. It's good barbecue, good chicken."
Thanks to a strict training regimen, Williams has reduced his body fat from 14 to nine percent since signing with the team in August. He now weighs 237 pounds, eight fewer than with the Lakers. He is also more comfortable with his new team. He admitted he was too eager in the Heat's season opener against the Wizards, when he made only one of nine field goals and missed all six three-point attempts.
After that game, Williams returned to the gym and shot 100 threes, making 77 shots. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told him to keep shooting in games, which gave him confidence. Since then, Williams has made 31 of 56 threes.
"Shawne's been terrific," Spoelstra said. "He's been coming in every single day with a work mentality, and that started in August. You root for guys like that, that really put in the work, put in the time. He's in terrific shape."
Williams has taken advantage of injuries to Danny Granger, Udonis Haslem and Josh McRoberts and given the Heat an outside shooter they were looking for when Shane Battier, Ray Allen and James Jones left in the offseason. As Williams knows, though, there's no guarantee he will continue to start or play significant minutes.
Still, having experienced past failures and endured time in the Development League, he said he's matured and learned from his transgressions. He's planning on sticking around for as long as possible.
"I want to retire from this league," Williams said. "I don't want to go to no overseas, ABA, CBA, none of that. I feel like I belong in the NBA, and that's where I want to play."