Basketball played at the highest level is, maybe, the most beautiful of sports. Unlike football, golf or baseball, the game ebbs and flows naturally, and, unlike hockey or soccer, for almost every excellent play there is a reward. Maybe there aren’t stats for great picks or active hands interrupting passing lanes, but more often than not they will result in a bucket or steal.
But rewards are not so usual in the case of sports with goaltenders; they are patiently cherished, which is almost as impure to sport as stopping to contemplate the next play. Basketball is beautiful in a different way than all these others. While they may be considered Michelangelo; basketball is Picasso during his Cubism period.
But as organic, even chaotic, as basketball is, it is still very much controlled chaos. Professional basketball has positions delegated by height, athleticism and skill. There are five traditional positions, as well as classifications for every player in-between. Players, coaches and fans all expect something out of players in their respective roles.
Dwight Howard might be the most athletic center in the league, but just imagining him pulling down a board, dribbling down the court, crossing up a cat and finishing with an ‘oop to his point guard Jameer Nelson is absurd. Stan Van Gundy’s screams would pop eardrums on both benches.
Still, every now and then, special players will come along that defy all these categorizations. They take over the game by becoming the controller of the chaos, typically by either doing everything or by doing everything so differently than other players. These oddities aren’t exactly once-in-a-generation, but they are certainly rare enough that there may only be three or four in the league at any given time. These players are what the few that even dare to classify them like to call “apositional players,” that is, players whose very position is the exact opposite of playing a defined position.
Others, without a penchant for make-believe words, like to call them simply “weird.”
While Terrence Williams attended high school and later the perennially-elite college of Louisville, he liked to wear a Pokemon backpack to class. Most young ballers fetish over their sneakers, but Williams was rumored to wear two different shoes to practice some days. There’s no evidence to back this up, but they were probably both lefts. Williams took it as a compliment that teammates and friends liked to call him weird.
Coaches may have called Williams weird too, but probably didn’t because they were too busy singing his praises. When I asked Louisville assistant coach Walter McCarty about Williams, his report was glowing.
“Terrence can have a huge effect on a game without ever scoring a bucket.”
McCarty and head coach Rick Pitino loved it that Williams allowed them significant roster flexibility, perhaps more than any other player in college basketball last season. Not only did Williams dish up some remarkable passes to his fellow Cardinals, but he also got after it on the boards better than almost any shooting guard in memory.
Finally McCarty made sure to note that they “would also use his strength on defense to stop opponent’s best players.”
Not their best wings, their best players. Period.
Terrence Williams could and can guard almost any player in basketball because he is, potentially, a true apositional talent. Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko fame and a leading authority on the analysis of unorthodox basketball understands that the subject should, however, be approached with caution.
“Too often, players who are flawed or ‘tweeners’ get lumped in as apositional.”
Williams, he believes, is not one of these players.
“(It’s important to) be honest about guys who defy positional roles in constructive ways, versus those who are somehow flawed or uneven, and thus only are worth the team’s while if they’re just that good.”
Shoal’s favorite example of a flawed position player simply too good to keep off the court is Gilbert Arenas. Agent Zero doesn’t have the selfless court vision of most point guards, but still needs the ball in his hands to be effective. To make up for this flaw he simply scores so efficiently on his own that the Wizards don’t need a traditional floor general. The inverse is a player like Tim Thomas, who quite oddly has the game of a D-League combo guard in the body of a power forward. Needless to say that’s never been enough to make Thomas a contributor for a serious contender
Still, constructive apositionality is not an easy trait to identify. Even Shoals struggled to agree on several players submitted to him during a lightning round.
To help classify appositional players, I typically go by two rules, and sometimes a third. First it shouldn’t ever surprise you when the player does something both spectacular and frightening. Second, the player’s game shouldn’t be aptly or appropriately described by any other player’s, unless that player is named Lamar Odom or, to inject a bit of history, Magic Johnson. Vintage Andrei Kirilenko could count here too.
When in doubt the final rule is an exact science. You know them when you see them.
The final question then, I suppose, is what exactly does an apositional player like Terrence Williams bring to an NBA team. The easy answer is listing his skills: rebounding, passing, handles, great defense, a leader on the break. The harder answer to quantify is glue, a whole lot of glue. Note that the Celtics needed Rajon Rondo, perhaps Shoal’s favorite example of an apositional player, to assist their Big Three to the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and that the Lakers only coasted to the championship once Lamar Odom – perhaps the most famous apositional player – played like a basketball guerilla.
Hiding behind stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, Odom appeared at the most opportune and crucial moments with whatever talent those somewhat flawed Lakers required.
More than anything else, however, an apositional player like Terrence Williams brings a certain distinct aesthetic that merges perfectly with basketball’s Cubist beauty. Just like he used to bring one red and one blue colored shoe to practice, hopefully Williams will eventually bring the final colors to the pallet of a championship teameven if those colors are, admittedly, pretty weird.