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Johnathan Williams was baking cookies and ‘chilling’ at his aunt’s when Wizards called

Washington Wizards forward and former Gonzaga standout Johnathan Williams dribbles the ball during the second half against the New York Knicks, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Washington. (Nick Wass / AP)
Washington Wizards forward and former Gonzaga standout Johnathan Williams dribbles the ball during the second half against the New York Knicks, Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Washington. (Nick Wass / AP)
By Candace Buckner Washington Post

Johnathan Williams suddenly had time on his hands. On Jan. 4, he made his fifth consecutive start with the Washington Wizards and after the game, Williams went to see general manager Tommy Sheppard. The Wizards liked him – the way he rebounded and hustled after joining the team Dec. 26 on a hardship exception – but they had to cut him when that contract expired.

Williams, 24, packed up his things and headed to a family member’s house in Fairfax, Virginia. He was an unemployed pro basketball player, yes, but one with options. He wasn’t dejected about the temporary status. Williams instead kept busy by doing nothing.

“Just hanging out, just waiting … at my aunt Peggy’s,” Williams said Sunday. “I was just chilling. Chilling, just on the phone, talking to family, go get a haircut. I like to cook so I baked some cookies. Just chilling.”

Besides his motor on the hardwood, Williams’s patience off it might be one of his better qualities as a pro.

On Sunday, Williams left Aunt Peggy’s house when Washington brought him back on a two-way contract. With the one-year deal for the rest of this season, Williams will split time with the team’s G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, as well as log minutes with the Wizards when needed.

After being waived, Williams believed a return to the Wizards was possible, but he was given no assurances. Still, Williams didn’t stress. He learned to adapt earlier in the year when he signed to play with Maccabi Rishon Lezion in Israel, following a year in the Los Angeles Lakers’ franchise that didn’t work out as he had expected. Instead of obsessing about getting back into the league, Williams remained in the present.

“The plan was to focus on how to be the best player for the team he was on, which was Maccabi,” said George David, his agent and a former league executive. “I just told him to do that. He had to not worry about any other teams or leagues and just focus on that.”

While on a EuroCup team, the second division beneath EuroLeague, Williams helped Rishon stay competitive by averaging 11.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. In Israel, Williams also distanced his mind from the NBA.

“Once you go to Europe, you just think about how you can go up from there. You’re not thinking about the NBA,” Williams said. “The only way you get back to the NBA is if you don’t think about the NBA. So I put the NBA behind me and focused on how I can become the best European player over there.”

He purchased a television package to watch EuroLeague games, not the NBA’s League Pass. When Williams did allow himself to think about the future, he envisioned himself with a team like Real Madrid or CSKA Madrid, not the Wizards.

The only things he knew about Washington were that his former Gonzaga teammate Rui Hachimura was on the roster and that he and Bradley Beal have worked out with the same trainer.

So when the Wizards called to sign him to a hardship exception, which allows a team hamstrung by injuries to bring in a temporary replacement player, Williams was ready – but only after committing himself to one more tilt in Israel. On Dec. 22, Rishon played a triple-overtime game in which Williams recorded 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Four days later, Williams was back in the United States, preparing to face the Detroit Pistons.

“On Sunday, he played a triple-overtime game in Israel,” David said. “On Thursday, he was guarding Blake Griffin.”

Ten days later, though, Williams would be out of the league because his exception had expired. Still, the move didn’t seem final. Sheppard had expressed a desire to work out a plan to bring him back.

Instead of returning home to Memphis, Tennessee, Williams remained in the Washington area. Several teams had reached out to his agent, so Williams needed to stay in one place and wait to find out where he would land after clearing waivers. As it turned out, Williams would not have to travel far to find his next NBA home. The Wizards cleared roster space to sign center Anzejs Pasecniks to a standard NBA deal, opening up a two-way contract to use on Williams.

“We had interest from a handful of clubs,” David said. “Ultimately, he felt as though that his heart was with the Wizards, especially with the appreciation for them taking a chance on him.”

Now back in the NBA, Williams, who will be a restricted free agent this summer, wants to prove he can play with high energy on a consistent basis. Whether it’s chilling at Aunt Peggy’s or waiting his turn on the Wizards bench, Williams plans to keep focusing on the present.

“I mean, I’ve been waived once before so I know I handled it better this time,” Williams said. “It’s a journey.”

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