Jalen Williams’ confidence is evident in these playoffs and his postgame outfits

Jalen Williams’ confidence is evident in these playoffs and his postgame outfits

The Thunder’s rising star had the basketball world buzzing after Game 3 because of how he played and what he wore.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Apr 28, 2024, 7:10pm CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Apr 28, 2024, 7:10pm CDT

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Jalen Williams often does things on the basketball court that defy definition.

That was the case Saturday as the Thunder took a dominating lead in its Western Conference playoff series against the Pelicans. Normally, we’d get right to all those on-court talents and skills that surprised and delighted, but first, we’ve got to address something about Williams that really defied description.

What he wore to the postgame press conference.

It was a black wool knit balaclava — you know, like a ski mask that covers the head and neck and has a hole for the face — and the face hole was ringed with large crystals and pearls. 

Was Williams doing an impression of Kenny from “South Park”? Eskimo Joe of Stillwater fame?

Social media went kooky over Williams’ look.

So did Charles Barkley during TNT’s postgame show.

“What the hell?” Barkley said. “He wore that to the game? That’s a real outfit? He must’ve known he was going to play well. He looks like a damn idiot, but he played well. 

“C’mon, man. You just can’t wear anything, kids. C’mon, kids.”

It was something.

Then again, so was Williams.

On a day he was hit in the face 22 seconds into the game and had to go to the locker room with an eye injury, Williams didn’t just return to action. He scored 21 points, and he had the offensive outburst that put the game on ice and the Pelicans on thin ice heading into Game 4 on Monday night. He accounted for nine points during a defining second-half stretch, hitting one three after another from the right wing, helping extend the Thunder’s lead from 10 points to 20.

New Orleans never threatened again.

“As big and maybe surprising as those were,” Thunder superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said of Williams’ three 3-pointers, “I’m not surprised. He’s in the gym constantly. He’s confident, and as a group, we give him that confidence to make shots, take shots, the big ones, the little ones. 

“He was clearly big tonight and very impressive. Nothing I’m not used to.”

It’s something the NBA world is becoming more accustomed to. With all the games so far on TNT, this series is likely the first time many basketball fans are seeing what Williams can do.

But to understand how Williams has gone from a little known lottery draft pick out of Santa Clara to a superstar in the making, you need only know why he wore that headgear after the game. It’s the same reason he wears mismatched shoes and leads the barking in the postgame on-court interviews and recently donned a T-shirt with MARK across the top and pictures of his head coach.

His head coach!

What NBA player does that?

“The thing I’ll say about him as a person and a player,” said the head coach in question, Thunder head man Mark Daigneault, “he’s incredibly comfortable in his skin. He’s his own guy. He’s not looking to the left or the right in terms of how to behave, how to play. 

“That’s what’s most impressive about him as a young player.”

Daigneault remembers seeing signs of that the first time he watched Williams play. The coach was with Thunder general manager Sam Presti, and they went to see Santa Clara play Gonzaga.

“And they’re getting absolutely drilled,” Daigneault said of Williams and his Santa Clara teammates. “And he’s still just making the next right play. He’s not trying to force anything. He’s not trying to go force a play that’s not there.”

That told Daigneault that Williams was confident in himself and comfortable in his skin. 

That continues to be the case. Daigneault hasn’t seen Williams change his approach even as his game has elevated and his star has risen.

“The way it shows up on the court is with his effort,” Daigneault said. “As he’s ascended as a player … his effort has not waned at all. He plays just as hard as he did in his first training camp. 

“Then, he always plays the right way.”

That was illustrated in that second-half stretch Williams had Saturday. All of three of the shots he hit from behind the arc were great looks even though they were all different. 

The first came on a swing pass from SGA that Williams caught and shot. Pels guard Naji Marshall had sagged off, hedging a bit toward SGA in fear of a drive, and Williams had ample space to get off a wide-open look.

The second three was off the dribble, but when Gordon Hayward set a bit of a screen and Trey Murphy did almost nothing to get through it, Williams had another look that was wide open by NBA standards.

The third three was Williams’ most harried make during that defining run. Aaron Wiggins drove toward the basket but found his route cut off. With the shot clock getting perilously low, he passed out to Williams, who took a hard dribble and a jab step that got Brandon Ingram on his heels. Williams then stepped back and falling away, nailed another three.

What’s more, during that offensive explosion, Williams also snagged a defensive rebound, then teamed with Isaiah Joe to get a steal on another Pelicans’ possession.

It was the best stretch of what has been an outstanding run for a playoff newbie. In Williams’ first three career playoff games, he’s shooting 52.9% from the floor and 41.7% from behind the arc while averaging 20.3 points

“It’s a little comforting,” Williams said of his performance so far in the playoffs, “ just because I work hard in the offseason to try to fix my game and cover some of my flaws that I have and just get better. … When you can get to this stage and kind of have a little bit of success, it’s special. 

“There’s still stuff I don’t like that I do in the game. I have a lot of improvement that I can make, but I think for any player, when you (hit) shots that you work on every day, it feels good.”

Isn’t that interesting? Williams admitted there are things he does that he doesn’t like. That isn’t something you hear from most NBA players. Even if they believe, they don’t usually say it.

Williams is comfortable enough and confident enough to lay it all out there.

He acknowledges, too, that the playoffs are a bit unsettling.

“It’s kind of hard to get comfortable,” he said, “but I think my confidence has stayed pretty even keel.”

The confidence is evident on the court.

Off the court, too. Otherwise, it seems highly unlikely Williams would have worn that bedazzled balaclava or the MARK T-shirt.

“I’ve never seen him look better,” Daigneault deadpanned about the T-shirt.

The “South Park” Kenny look?

Let’s just say, it was something.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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