Williams a surprise star for Arizona

When USC assistant coach Bob Cantu caught his first glimpse of Derrick Williams, it was purely by accident.

He was there to watch Renardo Sidney.

Williams put up 42.

Cantu then went to scout talented forward Tyler Honeycutt against Williams’ La Mirada (CA) High team.

Williams put up 40.

Cantu concluded the trifecta by attending a playoff game in which Williams went for 29 in a half and finished with more than 40 against Jordan Hamilton.

"I know he wasn’t there to see me," Williams laughs. "But it ended up working out for me."

"He was under-the-radar," Cantu says now with a pit in his chest about Williams. "People questioned what position he’d play in college."

But Cantu was sold — and then he wound up convincing his head coach at the time, Tim Floyd.

Williams committed to USC over Nevada in November of 2008.

"I felt like we stole a player," Cantu said.

Then Floyd became embroiled in the O.J. Mayo mess, an NCAA investigation ensued and it was a mass exodus as there was all sorts of speculation into Floyd’s future and the status of the Trojans program.

DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson left early for the NBA. Daniel Hackett bolted for Italy and the recruits that were both signed and committed went elsewhere.

Lamont Jones was released from his letter-of-intent and wound up at Arizona. Solomon Hill, who had committed to the Trojans, also landed in Tucson. Noel Johnson ended up at Clemson.

"I was the last one to de-commit," Williams said. "I felt like I had no choice at that point. No one was left."

So Williams was given his release by former USC athletic director Mike Garrett on June 15, 2009 and took less than a week to choose a new school. He spent a couple days down in Memphis, flew home for a day and then jumped back on a plane to Tucson.

New Arizona coach Sean Miller and his staff had never seen Williams, but the Wildcats desperately needed players.

"I knew they hadn’t seen me play, but it didn’t matter to me," Williams said. "I didn’t have much time. Arizona was always one of my top schools, but they didn’t recruit me in high school."

When Cantu, still an assistant at USC under new coach Kevin O’Neill, steps onto the court Saturday night and his eyes focus on Williams, it’ll be with mixed emotions.

"I love the kid," Cantu said. "But it’s tough not to see him in a Trojans uniform. It hurts bad."

Williams has quickly and quietly become the face of the Arizona program, one of the elite players in the country and the guy in charge of getting the Wildcats back to national relevance and back to the NCAA tournament — where they had been 25 consecutive times prior to last season.

"Last year all of us were thinking we were going to make it," Williams said. "But we didn’t realize how hard we had to work — and how difficult it was going to be."

Williams didn’t even start his first college game, but Miller inserted him into the starting lineup in the third game of the season and Williams responded with 25 points against a Wisconsin team known for its stingy defense.

Williams also set the school-record by going to the free throw line a staggering 21 times.

This season, Williams (19.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg) has put himself in the equation for the National Player of the Year award, but what ultimately may wind up holding him back is his unselfishness.

Williams averages just 9.2 shot attempts per game, less than half of BYU’s Jimmer Fredette (18.8) and nearly half of what UConn’s Kemba Walker attempts (18.2) per contest.

"He’s an unbelievable kid and teammate," Miller said of Arizona’s star player. "He’s just so unselfish and never forces anything."

Too unselfish.

Most guys who are making a sizzling 70 percent of their 3-pointers through the first 18 games of the season would be sitting out on the perimeter waiting to launch shots from deep over and over.

Not Williams.

Instead, he took just three shots from beyond the arc in the two games out in Washington last week — and made two of them.

On Thursday night, in a resounding victory over UCLA that put Arizona in sole possession of second place in the Pac-10 behind Washington, Williams finished with 22 points and made 2 of 4 shots from 3-point range.

"He’s just so diverse offensively," Miller said. "That’s what makes him so difficult to stop."

Miller remains relentless on Williams’ defensive effort, constantly chiding him to step up that area of his game.

"I hear it all the time," Williams laughs. "It’s good for me. He’s right. I can’t argue with that at all. I need to get better defensively."

Arizona improved to 17-4 with the victory over UCLA on Thursday night, but Williams isn’t satisfied.

"We’re not back yet, but we’re on our way," he said. "Next year, if everyone stays."

That’s when Miller will bring in a trio of top players: Guards Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson and big man Sikidi Johnson.

"That’s when I think we can be back," Williams said with a smile.

But it’ll likely depend on Williams — and whether he sticks around Tucson for one more year or leaves early for the NBA.

Williams won’t lie. He thinks about the NBA and also about his road from anonymity that ultimately led him to Tucson.

"I think about it all the time," Williams said. "I shouldn’t have ever been here."