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Pat Sullivan, Associated Pressmichael Brandy, Deseret Newsjeff Haynes, GettyImagesphotos/Deseret News Archives
Phoenix Suns' point guard Steve Nash (13) drives past Houston Rockets' counterpart Rafer Alston (12) during a recent game. Nash is a two-time league MVP.

San Antonio's Tony Parker has three NBA title rings.

Phoenix's Steve Nash has two NBA Most Valuable Player awards.

Chris Paul of New Orleans has adoration from the masses, and is a top contender — along with Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston's Kevin Garnett — to be named MVP this season.

And Deron Williams?

All the Jazz point guard has is the highest of regard from most who cross his path, a road which — as Williams tells it — could very well lead to somewhere not even all-time NBA steals and assists leader John Stockton stepped.

"I think we're one of the best teams in the league, if not the best team in the league," Williams, asked about the Jazz's chances for winning a championship, said as the Jazz prepared to open postseason play. "I believe that."

If Utah is to win, anytime in the foreseeable future, what eluded both Stockton and fellow Jazz retiree Karl Malone — this year, next year, sometime sooner rather than later — it likely will be largely because of the play of its point. Someone, who in three seasons out of the University of Illinois, has quickly but quietly climbed high up the ladder of elite NBA floor generals.

The league's Western Conference playoff qualifiers this season are overloaded with quality point guards, and Williams compares favorably with most, if not all, of them.

Houston's Rafer Alston has a great streetball nickname — Skip To My Lou — and has adapted well to NBA play.

But his Globetrotter-like game — which the Jazz are likely to see when they open first-round play in a best-of-seven series against the Rockets — still may be better suited to blacktop than the hardcourt.

Derek Fisher, like Parker, has three championship rings. But the Los Angeles Lakers — whom the Jazz may face in second-round play — are Bryant's team, not Fisher's.

The story is a similar one for Parker, who may have the keys to the Spurs but perhaps wouldn't get far without an engine named Tim Duncan.

Jason Kidd of Dallas is toward the tail end of a likely Hall of Fame career, and Williams actually is one of his understudies with USA Basketball's national-team program. But age is catching up with Kidd, and the up-and-coming Jazz point, who was raised in the Dallas area, arguably has a step up on the Maverick who once was his very own favorite player.

Nash, too, probably has most, perhaps all, of his best years behind him. And Williams gets as up to play the former MVP as he does Kidd, with a knack for finding his way under Nash's skin.

Then there is Paul, who was selected one spot behind No. 3 overall pick Williams in the 2005 NBA Draft — but has cast something of a shadow over him since, winning Rookie of the Year honors almost unanimously and making himself this year a lead character in an MVP discussion that doesn't even include Williams.

Paul and Williams are, and will continue to be, constantly compared — and certainly will draw further scrutiny should they meet in a surprise Jazz-Hornets Western Conference Finals series.

But demanding Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, for one, is thrilled to have Williams sitting in the seat left warm by Stockton — a chair that was tested by, but didn't quite fit, the likes of Carlos Arroyo, Raul Lopez, Mo Williams, Keith McLeod and Milt Palacio.

"He's been terrific," Sloan said. "That's the only thing I can say about him."

Actually, Sloan could — and did — say a lot more.

"We don't have a lot of teaching to do with him," said Sloan, whose only star pupil at the point for more than a decade and a half was Stockton. "He picks stuff up very well and very quick, and he goes out on the floor and he does it."

Williams is so adept at running the Jazz offense that Sloan has allowed him to call plays for much of the past two seasons, something not even Stockton — by his own volition — ventured to do.

"We're giving him more and more responsibility, because he probably does a better job than I do, and that makes it a little easier for me," Sloan said. "I think that's the bottom line."

It's a type of trust not easily won from Sloan, a man often falsely portrayed as unwilling to budge from his time-tested ways.

But the 20th-season Jazz coach has given Williams unprecedented rein, and it's in large part because of the way in which Williams so swiftly proved his worth.

That's the case even though the two did not initially see eye-to-eye, mostly because Williams thought he was NBA-ready early in his rookie season — and Sloan instead opted to make the prized pick pay some dues, playing NBA journeyman McLeod ahead of him.

It's also the case even though Williams is a bit unbridled, especially when contrasted to the steadier Stockton.

They employ decidedly different styles — Williams is something of a risk-taker, Stockton was much more by the book — yet Sloan has come to accept the former's just as much as he did the latter's.

"He's got to be who he's got to be. I'm not gonna change that about him. Same thing with John Stockton," Sloan said. "You're not gonna change a lot of things about them, because they'll let you know what they can do, and they'll show you what they can do day-in and day-out.

"That takes time," Sloan added, "for us to get confidence in each other."

It didn't take long, however.

By the end of his rookie season, Williams was starting, and he has been ever since.

Asked during a pass through New Jersey earlier this season exactly when it was that he and Williams reached the same wavelength, Sloan suggested there was no memorable moment.

"It's kind of evolved, because he had a little different way, and we've tried to adjust around that a little bit as we go farther," the Jazz coach said. "Because obviously he's the guy that does the job, and we've got to complement him any way we can to try to get the job done.

"I don't have a problem with any of that stuff myself," Sloan added. "I'm only interested in one thing. That's all I tell him is I'm interested in winning."

The words, now, are sweet music to Williams' ears.

"I got blessed into a great situation and a great coach," he said.

"I had to earn his trust my first year and go through some hard times, but the payoff is a lot better," Williams added. "I'm having fun, and I get a chance to win. Not a lot of guys who get drafted in the top five get a chance to win this early in their career. I'm happy."

But it truly has been an evolving process, Williams agreed.

"I'm grasping what Coach wants, and how to balance my scoring and my passing, and trying to get guys involved and knowing when to take over the game," he said during the season. "I think I have a good grasp of that, and try to do that effectively.

"I'm confident in my teammates," Williams added. "They're cutting for me, they're moving, making the game easy for me to find them — and it opens driving lanes for me, opens shots for me."

Teammates are similarly pleased with their point, and the possibilities his presence presents.

"He's getting, every game, a high number of assists, a low turnover ratio," starting shooting guard Ronnie Brewer said.

The statistics indeed are impressive.

In the regular season, Williams averaged 10.5 assists per game — third among NBA leaders behind only Paul (11.6) and Nash (11.1), and just ahead of Kidd (10.1).

His 18.8 points-per-game scoring average ranked third among all NBA point guards (topped by Paul and Golden State's Baron Davis, but not Nash). Williams' 50.7 percent field shooting was better than all other Western Conference point guards in the league.

And his 3.09 assists-per-turnover ratio topped every other starting playoff point in the West except Paul's 4.64.

Beyond the numbers, though, it may be the precision that impresses most.

"Pinpoint passes," said Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer, an All-Star during a season in which — with the benefit of hindsight — Williams probably should have been one as well.

"If you guys ever play Madden, it's like QB Vision," Boozer added with reference to a popular football video game with a feature that rewards passing accuracy. "He has that QB Vision. All you have to do is get your hands ready and catch it and put it in."

It's not just the passing and the points, though, which blow Boozer's mind.

"Deron's more athletic than y'all think he is," he said after a game this season in which Williams threw down a particularly spectacular dunk. "He (doesn't) show everything in the games. He (does) more stuff in practice than he (does) in the game.

"DWill's game is more than scoring. Much more," Boozer added.

"He can get steals, he can defend, he can get deflections. Obviously he gets everybody involved, getting a bunch of assists. But he affects the game — more than just one facet of it."

Paul's own teammates undoubtedly would spew similar sentiments about their point.

Such over-the-top plaudits, however, are no mere product of he's-mine loyalty.

Throughout the just-concluded season, after all, one opposing coach after another could be heard singing Williams' praises.

"He's very good at finding the slips, finding the spot on people," said Washington's Eddie Jordan, who added that the Wizards tried "about 100 different things" to stop the Jazz's new-age pick-and-roll of Williams-to-Boozer. "He's good with vision from the strong side of the floor all the way to the weak side of the floor.

"He's one of the best at it."

What ultimately will define the degree of separation between not only Paul and Williams, but also Williams and the West's other best, is the issue of titles.

Fisher — who was Williams' backup last season in Utah, but now is back with the Lakers — has his. So does Parker, and they're not to be dismissed.

But the chase is on for the next, and Williams and Paul are the new-breed point guards leading a rather rabid pack of pursuers.

It's virtually anyone's to be had, and Williams is readily willing to admit as much.

Best team in the league, huh?

"I believe that everybody that's going into the playoffs," Williams said, "has got to believe that."


By the numbers

How the eight starting points guards in the West compare

. . . . . Team . . . . . Pts. . . . . . Ast. . . . . . Reb. . . . . . TO . . . . . FG% . . . . . 3FG5 . . . . . FT%

Chris Paul . . . . . Hornets . . . . . 21.8 . . . . . 11.6 . . . . . 4.0 . . . . . 2.5 . . . . . 48.8 . . . . . 36.9 . . . . . 85.1

Deron Williams . . . . . Jazz . . . . . 18.8 . . . . . 10.5 . . . . . 3.0 . . . . . 3.4 . . . . . 50.7 . . . . . 39.5 . . . . . 80.3

Tony Parker . . . . . Spurs . . . . . 18.8 . . . . . 6.0 . . . . . 3.2 . . . . . 2.4 . . . . . 49.4 . . . . . 25.8 . . . . . 71.5

Steve Nash . . . . . Suns . . . . . 16.9 . . . . . 11.1 . . . . . 3.5 . . . . . 3.6 . . . . . 50.4 . . . . . 47.0 . . . . . 90.6

Rafer Alston . . . . . Rockets . . . . . 13.1 . . . . . 5.3 . . . . . 3.5 . . . . . 2.2 . . . . . 39.4 . . . . . 35.1 . . . . . 71.5

Derek Fisher . . . . . Lakers . . . . . 11.7 . . . . . 2.9 . . . . . 2.1 . . . . . 1.1 . . . . . 43.6 . . . . . 40.6 . . . . . 88.3

Jason Kidd . . . . . Mavs . . . . . 10.8 . . . . . 10.1 . . . . . 7.5 . . . . . 3.3 . . . . . 38.5 . . . . . 38.1 . . . . . 81.8

Anthony Carter . . . . . Nuggets . . . . . 7.8 . . . . . 5.5 . . . . . 2.9 . . . . . 1.8 . . . . . 45.8 . . . . . 34.9 . . . . . 75.3


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