BEIJING The comparisons to Chris Paul don't seem so important anymore. The rookie growing pains a while back. The fact that he has yet to make the NBA All-Star team.
Deron Williams' arrival here, at the elite level of his sport, occurred much before the U.S. basketball team's touchdown in Beijing. And he is determined to enjoy it.
"I'm just having fun right now," he said before practice this week. "I feel like I'm in a great place in my career. For being in just my third year, being on this team is an honor and I'm just soaking it all."
At 24, Williams is clearly at peace with his role in the league, his place in the NBA and at this moment, in the basketball world. He has not yet been voted to an All-Star game but, as Jason Kidd predicted, "he will be in Phoenix for the game next year."
And likely for many more after that. But frankly, it doesn't seem all that big of a deal.
"This is 12 people as opposed to 26, 27 after injuries and replacements," he said with a smile. "This is one of the best honors you can have."
Debating whether Williams, the No. 3 overall pick, or Paul, the gifted New Orleans point guard taken fourth, will be better over time no longer seems warranted.
"He's as good a point guard as anybody," assistant coach Mike D'Antoni said of Williams. "When people ask who's the best, people like different things. He could be lumped in with Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, all these guys. I don't know how you distinguish who's the best but he's definitely in the argument."
What is more significant is that after years of a point guard dearth in the NBA after Nash and Kidd these two have blossomed at the same time.
"It's a cycle," Kidd said. "But you got two of the best when you're talking about Chris and Deron. They don't have to score. They can dictate the game by finding their teammates. That's a true point guard."
In Beijing these last two weeks, they have shared the backcourt often, Williams playing off the ball and Paul taking his natural point.
"It's fun though," Williams said. "We play well together, mesh well offensively. Defensively, we bring a lot of energy, pressure the ball a lot. I'm having a blast playing with Chris."
Williams has been averaging 21 minutes per game and Paul 22, as the U.S. has run over its opposition here. The Americans play Spain for the gold medal on Sunday.
"They've been so good together," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I think they respect one another so much and they're confident in their own stuff that they just allow each other to be good. (Against Germany), on the break, one time Deron hits Chris and another time Chris hits Deron. When they're in the game, we have young legs, great pressure and it's a different look. It's been a key part of our team."
Williams said he enjoys the more physical nature of the international game and it is evident in his play on both ends of the court.
"There was a time in the Spain game where he just got the ball and said 'I want to score,' and he went down the lane and you could see it in him," Paul said. "There's no way you're going to stop him when he gets that mentality because he's so big and strong and athletic."
Still, Paul seemed to adjust more quickly to the NBA, making an immediate impact while Williams chafed under the tight reigns of Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
"We were in a little different situation," Williams said. "He was pretty much handed the ball and allowed to play free. I was playing two-guard, one-guard. Sometimes I wouldn't play. Sometimes I'd play 30 minutes.
"We had different coaches. And one coach really doesn't like rookies."
Sloan's reputation is no secret. But that did not make it any easier for Williams.
The point guard by proxy at Illinois as Dee Brown settled into more of a shooting guard role, Williams was the undeniable catalyst for a team that went to the NCAA championship game in 2005.
"Sometimes it seems like it was a long time ago, sometimes it seems like it was yesterday," said Williams, now married with two daughters. "I think it has gone by fast, my three years in the league. When I say I'm going into my fourth year, it seems like it flew by."
As solid as his All-American credentials were at Illinois, Williams says the differences in him as both a player and a person from those days in Champagne are "night and day."
"I'm just a lot more confident right now as a player, probably as a person too," he said. "I tended to shy away from the media and stuff when I was in college. I didn't like all the attention."
Williams averaged 18.8 points and 10.5 assists per game last season, third in the league behind Nash and Paul.
"As a player, I was confident in college but I'm a way better scorer than I was," said Williams. "I'm willing to try more than I would in college.
"I'm just a different player, it's kind of hard to explain. But I didn't really have to be a scorer on my team in college for us to have success. I'm more consistent now where I have more good games in a row. I've figured out how to bring it every night."
He and Paul are close, always have been despite the friendly rivalry that has been built up since the draft. And now they have a common bond that unites them all the more.
"Me and D-Will feel honored to be in this situation," Paul said. "We understand that we're definitely connected for the rest of our careers, but this is representing our country and not too many guys get this opportunity, so we're trying to take full advantage of it."Hopefully, he's going to get his first gold medal. Same thing with me."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.