LOS ANGELES — As a child in Texas, Deron Williams won two state wrestling championships. Now, as the focal point of the Utah Jazz, the all-star guard faces the most imposing opponent of his professional career.
Pervasive, unceasing exasperation.
"I've never had a season this frustrating, personally and as a team," Williams said during All-Star Weekend festivities. "Never."
Nevertheless, Williams has averaged more assists (9.7 per game) than all but two NBA players and is on pace to record the best scoring average of his career (21.3).
Despite his statistics, Williams has watched the Jazz stumble during the past five weeks while playing much of the season with a sprained wrist that affects his shooting.
In the past seven games, Williams made just 44-of-110 shots — and missed 27-of-34 from 3-point range.
"I know I lack confidence in my game, and that's translating to everybody else," Williams said. "It was weighing on me a lot.
"I haven't been shooting well. Now, I'm thinking, 'Should I take this shot or should I pass?' I can't play like that.
"In the last couple of games, I've just been trying to play hard and do other things: rebound a little bit more, try to get some more steals, try to do other things to help us have a chance to win while I've been struggling offensively."
The Jazz lost 11 of their last 13 games to fall into a tie with Memphis for eighth place — the final playoff spot — in the Western Conference.
Adding to Williams' burden is the controversy surrounding head coach Jerry Sloan's abrupt resignation Feb. 10, one day after the point guard and the coach argued at halftime of a 91-86 loss to Chicago.
Many have blamed Williams for Sloan's departure; the two had a cantankerous relationship.
"It was frustrating because I felt like — I know — I wasn't the reason Coach Sloan decided to step down," Williams said. "If Coach Sloan calls a play, I'm going to run it.
"There were a lot of reports out there that were false, a lot of 'sources,' as they call them, that had opinions. You know, I can't really control all that.
"There are going to be people who choose to believe the first thing they hear, the first thing they see on 'SportsCenter.' More power to 'em."
Still, Williams regrets the way his relationship with Sloan developed.
"I wish we would've had a better one," Williams said. "I wish we would have talked more. I did whatever Coach Sloan said, offensively and defensively. Sometimes, we'd disagree on things and we'd have an argument.
"You know, I think we're a lot similar and I think that's why we bumped heads a lot. We want to win so badly, and we're both stubborn. I think that cost us a lot in our relationship."
Ty Corbin, appointed to replace Sloan, offers a less intense counterbalance.
"They're a lot different," Williams said. "Ty's 30 years younger and he can relate to us a little bit better. He's a little bit easier to approach."
Yet Corbin has not totally replaced Sloan in Williams' mind. The point guard still calls Sloan "coach" automatically and uses the present tense while discussing him.
"Coach can be intimidating just because of his stature," Williams said. "He's a Hall of Famer, and he's been here for so many years, so it's hard for a lot of guys to approach him."
With Williams facing immediate challenges, confronting free agency will have to wait.
"I can't even think about it," he said. "There are so many different things that weigh on free agency for me. The collective bargaining agreement is the first one.
"I don't even want to think about it. I don't want to get into one of those things where everybody's guessing what I'm going to do. You can guess if you want to but you're not going to know from me."
One thing is certain, said Williams: He will not imitate LeBron James and orchestrate a program such as "The Decision," televised by ESPN in July.
"I don't think anybody would tune in, anyway," he said. "You'll have a decision when I have one."
Williams' more immediate concern is the Jazz's playoff hopes. Two players, in Williams' mind, who could provide pivotal roles are newcomers Al Jefferson and Gordon Hayward. Jefferson leads the Jazz in rebounding (9.1 per game) and ranks second in scoring (17.4).
"Al's been doing a great job for us all year," Williams said. "He's improving every game and getting more and more used to our system of offense and our style of play. I look forward to him improving a lot in the second half."
Hayward, a rookie who led Butler to last year's NCAA final against Duke, has started just 12 of the 48 games in which he has played.
"It's been a strange year for him," Williams said. "He's had a large stretch when he wasn't playing any minutes. Then we had some injuries and he was inserted in the starting lineup. It's a lot to ask of a rookie.
"But I think he's progressing well. He plays well in practice. He works hard and, really, that's all you can ask for."
If the NBA's All-Star Weekend offers anything to the rest of the Jazz, it would be a chance to relax and recharge.
"We've had times when we've been hot coming into the all-star break and I thought, 'I wish we didn't have it,' " Williams said. "This year, it's kind of the opposite. We've been pretty cold and it would be a good chance for us just to get a break, to get refocused.
"We've played some good basketball this season. We just have to find ourselves again. We've just got to go back to playing and having fun."
After 53 games this season, Williams' prescription for his team contains a uniquely personal meaning.
NBA All-Star Game
Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference
Today, 6:30 p.m.
Staples Center, Los Angeles
TV: TNT Radio: 700 AM
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