Three players hits career milestones in the Suns’ nine-point win at home over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.
Devin Booker became the Suns’ all-time leader in 3-point field goals made (1052), and Suns backup shooting guard Terrence Ross grabbed his 2000th rebound.
In addition, the Thunder’s 6-foot-6 rookie wing Jalen Williams reached third place on his team’s all-time rookie scoring list.
“I’m just playing hard. I think a lot of that has to do with being able to get minutes, which goes back to the coaching staff kind of having faith in me to just go out there and play through my mistakes,” Williams said in the postgame.
“Just kind of read what the defense gives me and playing off of our guys. It’s easier to score when guys are willing to be unselfish and share the ball.”
Williams is a former Gilbert Perry High School standout who was drafted by the Thunder 12th overall last June. After he declared for the draft as a junior at Santa Clara, Williams became the highest pick from that school since the Suns picked Hall of Famer Steve Nash at No. 15 in 1996.
Williams finished the game with his team’s second-most 22 points behind Isaiah Joe’s 28, shot a stellar 8-of-14, got six rebounds, four assists and a steal off Booker.
“He’s just a good player. He puts the ball down, he can get to the basket and he’s big,” Suns coach Monty Williams said about Williams.
“So even when we were in front of him, he can attack an angle and hit you with his body and try to finish. He’s a big, athletic kid, young man, and he’s a smart player. We thought highly of him in the draft, and Sam’s one of the best at finding talent. We weren’t surprised by his ability to get to the paint tonight.”
Williams’ achievement was special because it was his first homecoming game against the Suns after he attended many of their games since he was a child growing up in Gilbert.
“I had a bunch of family and friends here. It’s always cool to come back home, and most of all I got to see my parents,” Williams said. “Cool experience to be here for the first time and actually play, I’m like 25, 30 minutes away from here, so being able to play here after coming here to watch games since I was probably eight is really cool.”
Williams, 21, clarified that he grew up not rooting for the Suns, but rather Kobe Bryant as he led the Lakers in their heated rivalry against Nash and the Suns during the late 2000s.
Now, Williams is making his own mark in the NBA.
Williams has the fourth-best scoring average among this season’s rookies at 12.3 points per game, hitting 50.7% of his shots, along with 4.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists.
He’s started in 42 of the Thunder’s 55 games, averaging the teams fourth-most in minutes per game (29.2) and points, third in assists, and second in steals (1.2).
His performance this season earned him a spot in the Jordan Rising Stars Challenge for rookies and sophomore players for Joakim Noah’s team in Salt Lake City last Sunday.
“The thing that stands out about him is just how complete of a player he is. He’s got a great physical profile,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said about Williams before the Suns-Thunder game. “He’s athletic. He can move. He’s strong. He’s got great length and size. He’s very intelligent as a player, both from an anticipatory standpoint on the court and also from a maturity standpoint.
“If he’s got four points in the third quarter, he’s still making the right play in the third quarter, which is very unique for a young player. He was doing that at Santa Clara, and he’s skilled. He’s a shoot-pass-dribble, and he’s got defensive skills that have caught up.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been rebuilding since they traded their former franchise stars Russell Westbrook to Houston and Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2019, and Chris Paul to Phoenix the following year. Their longtime general manager Sam Presti finessed a barrel load of first-round draft picks from those trades, and are now the youngest team in the league (average player age 23.14 years old).
Daigneault further explained about the way the Thunder tests its rookies by seeing how well they offensively and defensively “clear the first hurdle” in front of them. If they don’t clear it, then the team works to develop them to leap over it. But Williams is a rookie who Daigneault described as successfully clearing multiple ones placed in his path.
That includes Daigneault’s praise for how Williams guarded Celtics All-Stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum at Boston on Nov. 14, and when Williams was assigned to check LeBron James on Feb. 7 in Los Angeles, the night he became the league’s all-time leading scorer.
Then he had to task of initiating the Thunder’s offense and guarding Booker.
“I’m just accepting the challenge. Obviously, he had a lot of points,” Williams said with a chuckle about Booker scoring 25. “Just going out there and getting these experiences now is good. I think it kind of let’s me know what I need to work on offensively and defensively.
“Just trying to learn from the guys and also learn who I’m playing against, see how he pick his spot. But it’s fun to compete and it’s cool that the coaching staff has a lot of trust in me. They’re willing to kind of throw me out there in those situations, and I’m not backing down from whoever’s in the situation or task is.”
But what Williams is mostly proud about is his younger brother and Perry senior Cody Williams, who was named a McDonalds High School All-American earlier this month and is committed to Colorado.
He was projected as the No. 2 overall pick in ESPN’s 2024 NBA mock draft on Wednesday.
“Obviously, the Draft Express thing I can’t really relate to that. I wasn’t really on anything. So he’s ahead of me in that way,” Williams said about his brother Cody while laughing. “But it’s really cool just kind of knowing I molded a lot of that, and being a part of watching him go through his own experiences at his own rate is really awesome.”
Cody Williams helped lead the No. 1 Pumas to their Open Division state semifinal win over No. 13 Scottsdale Desert Mountain also on Friday.
“It kind of went for him not really wanting to go, and now since I’ve left to kind of seeing a lot of this stuff where he would see me going to the gym late at night and skip hanging out with friends to go workout,” Williams said about Cody.
“He really adapted and kind of jumped into that and it’s really cool to watch him grow up. He’s kind of seeing what his work will get him and he’s been playing really well. I’m excited to see what’s next for him.”