Before Johnathan Williams could join Magic Johnson and Andre Ingram as just the third Los Angeles Lakers rookie of all time to put up at least eight points and three blocks in their NBA debut, the Lakers cut him.
In what appeared to be a simple procedural move at the time, the Lakers waived Williams — along with Scott Machado, a player who had been on the roster less than a day — on October 13., despite him having relatively impressive preseason production in limited minutes on a team with an open roster spot.
For fans, this was taken as a sign that the hard-hustling rookie would be with the team’s G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers. For Williams, it was a moment his career seemed to be in jeopardy.
Over the next six days, Williams would regularly pray and make phone calls to his pastor, looking for guidance and trying not to lose faith.
”One thing my parents always said is that God always has a plan,” Williams said. “I just tried to stay focused, never get too high, never get too low and just always be pushing forward.”
Six days later Williams’ prayers were answered: The Lakers had waived Travis Wear and were re-adding him on a two-way contract. Still, even then, a chance to make a real impact in an NBA game must have seemed far away.
And then JaVale McGee got into foul trouble against the San Antonio Spurs, followed by Ivica Zubac picking up five fouls in five minutes. All of a sudden, Lakers head coach Luke Walton was looking down his bench to call Williams’ number. But while some rookie centers might have felt pressure to go out and fight for their job, that wasn’t what was going through Williams’ head.
“It was my first time in a game, so it was just ‘go out there, have fun, do what the coaches tell me to do and try to just play as hard as I can in the time they gave me,’” Williams said.
He did pretty well in his first shift, well enough that when McGee fouled out, Walton sent Williams back into the game to run pick and rolls with LeBron James with the game on the line.
Can't say enough about Johnathan Williams, who was signed to a two-way contract three days ago.— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) October 23, 2018
After both of the Lakers' top centers fouled out, he was called upon in overtime & delivered.
In OT: Three big blocks, good screening, a tough put-back & an and-1 off the roll. pic.twitter.com/TK9vsw7Qpn
Despite the circumstances, Williams still wasn’t feeling too much pressure.
“I played in the Final Four back in college, and the national championship game, so I’ve been through the biggest stage,” Williams said. “I was kind of nervous, but once you step on the court and get that first down-and-back it just kind of goes away.”
His play backed up his words, as Williams didn’t show any signs of feeling the heat from the spotlight down the stretch of regulation or in overtime. Williams blocked shots, set rock-solid screens and dunked home put-backs to finish with eight points on 4-5 shooting to go with 4 rebounds and 3 blocks in just 14 minutes, impressing his head coach in the process.
“That’s what we’ve seen from him since training camp started. It’s what made our staff take a close look at him because defensively he’s active and he’s really intelligent. His communication for a being a guy who’s trying to make camp and how much he talks during drills and calling out coverages has been really impressive,” Walton said.
“He was really, really good tonight down the stretch and I’m happy for him. He was out there just playing basketball and making reads. He’s not afraid of the moment,” Walton continued. “I was very happy, and obviously he played very well tonight.”
After a crazy game and a whirlwind last few weeks, Williams was happy too, saying he would always remember the great players he got to share the floor in his first regular season game on the iconic Staples Center court. The Lakers may have lost, but it was hard to not see Williams getting his prayers answered as some kind of win for the team, too.
“It was just an awesome moment, and I want to thank God for that,” Williams said.
The Lakers should be thanking whatever higher power they believe in for Williams, too.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.