CHICAGO He is embraced here, still sought by media members hanging on his every word and still adored by University of Illinois fans who haven't forgotten how he took the Illini to the 2005 NCAA Final Four title game.
But perhaps nowhere is he appreciated more right now than in Utah, where Jerry Sloan whose 42-22 club, winner of five straight and 20 of its last 24, opens a four-game trip tonight at Chicago credits Deron Williams, first and foremost, for the Jazz's stellar play of late.
After winning a critical road game Friday in Phoenix, Sloan couldn't say enough about his third-season point guard.
The typically tough-to-please Jazz coach called Williams' 25-point, 15-assist performance against two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and the Suns "really sensational" and suggested it was inspired by only the purest of pursuits.
Sans prompting, Sloan even reiterated a point that only the clarity of hindsight has permitted him to conclude.
"He thrives on trying to get better, right from Day One," said Sloan, who was reluctant to hand Williams keys to the Jazz early in his rookie season, even after he was selected No. 3 overall in the 2005 NBA Draft ahead of fellow point guards Chris Paul of Wake Forest and Raymond Felton of national champ North Carolina. "I probably hindered him as much as anything in his first year."
Now, Sloan who once played journeymen Keith McLeod and Milt Palacio ahead of Williams willingly fills the tank, permits virtually unlimited mileage and enjoys the ride from what more and more amounts to a passenger's seat.
After they followed their quality win in Phoenix with a convincing victory Saturday over Northwest Division-rival Denver, in fact, Sloan credited Williams with being the spark that makes the Jazz go.
Not since 1991 when Jazz retiree John Stockton, Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson, Denver's Michael Adams and Phoenix's Kevin Johnson did it have four NBA guards finished the same season averaging 10-plus assists.
Williams, who has dished at least 14 assists in five of his last seven games, doesn't deny the notion.
But he does readily dismiss any suggestion that it's the sole source of his inspired play.
"It was motivating," he said Monday, "but mostly, I just want to win. It's an important time right now because the (Western Conference playoff) race is so close, and I just feel I need to pick up my game for us to win some more ball games."
Whatever the stimulus, Williams' efforts are not going without notice.
"He just controls their team," Memphis coach Marc Iavaroni said after the second of two recent Utah victories over the Grizzlies. "He controls their offenses, whether it's in their regular sets or whether it's pick-and-roll.
"He has learned though his mistakes," Iavaroni added. "He learned how to take command of the team, and get people shots."
As for the present, both Willliams' coach and his biggest beneficiary simply hope he keeps doing what he has been.
"Deron Williams has played his best basketball," Sloan said. "All the things he's done, and the way he has taken the team and pushed them to another level the past couple of games with his determination to try to get things done, has really been very good for our team."
Contributing: Loren Jorgensen E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]