Marvin Williams was traveling in Spain last spring when the Charlotte Hornets picked their new coach.
It was past midnight in Europe and an unfamiliar phone number showed up on his cell phone, so Williams, the Hornets’ veteran power forward, let the call go to voice mail. The next day he called back new coach James Borrego, and they set up a lunch appointment at Charlotte’s Cheesecake Factory.
It wasn’t just large portions and scrumptious desserts that made that lunch memorable. Williams learned something important about his new boss.
“He really, really listened,” Williams recalled Tuesday night. “It was a great lunch.”
That’s what Williams thinks of Borrego. Now, here’s what Borrego thinks of Williams: He has a “corporate knowledge” that would have been cherished around Borrego’s prior franchise, the five-time champion San Antonio Spurs. Williams knows stuff from 14 NBA seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, Utah Jazz and Hornets that Borrego needs and will continue to need the rest of this season.
Williams had his most productive game statistically this season on Tuesday, with 20 points and eight rebounds against Atlanta. He made eight of his 14 shots from the field and 3-of-6 from 3-point range in the Hornets’ 113-102 victory over the Hawks.
Making shots matter, and Williams hasn’t been particularly strong in that regard this season. But it’s important to Borrego that fans get that isn’t all Williams provides.
“He quarterbacks our defense a lot of nights, and I don’t think people realize that,” Borrego described. “For a guy with that experience and that talent to quarterback your defense sets a tone.”
As Williams struggled with his shot over the season’s first 10 games (37 percent from the field, 21 percent from 3-point range), Borrego was asked last week about Williams’ performance. Borrego preemptively declared that Williams is the starter at power forward and will continue to be the starter at power forward.
Starting, at this stage of his career, isn’t important to Williams. But knowing teammates and coaches value what he contributes is.
“It’s not about starting or coming off the bench; it’s about helping this team win,” Williams said post-game Tuesday. “I want an opportunity to play because I do feel I can help this team win in whatever role it is. I know coach knows that; we talked about it this summer. I know my teammates appreciate what I bring to the table.”
Then-Hornets general manager Rich Cho signing Williams in the summer of 2014 wasn’t considered at the time a big deal, but Williams earned a second contract in the summer of 2016 worth $54 million over four years.
What the Hornets got was a 3-point shooter, but also a sense of experience and “calm” (Borrego’s word) that is important beyond the box score. Borrego said it’s not just how many 3s Williams makes, it’s how conscious opposing teams are of him as a threat to make them.
“Most teams hug up to Marvin (defensively) - they don’t want to give him open looks - and that gives us spacing,” Borrego said. “Tonight, Atlanta decided to take their chances on Marvin and he dinged them with some 3s.”
Williams was asked Thursday morning about another former North Carolina star, Vince Carter, still playing for the Hawks at 41. Williams, who turned 32 in June, said he couldn’t imagine trying to play another decade in the NBA. That’s partially about physical longevity, and partially about having a life away from basketball demanding more time and attention.
Williams has a 3-year-old daughter who now notices when he’s gone, and he doesn’t want to miss significant events in her upbringing. So the end of his basketball career could be after next season, the last on his current contract.
If so, he’d leave with quite a legacy, Borrego described:
“He just gets the game. He gets his teammates and he knows the feel and the culture of this organization and in that locker room,” Borrego said.
“I think the most rewarding thing for most players - and Marvin has this - is the respect of his teammates. At the end of the day, when players walk away, the real reward is, ‘What do my teammates think if me? What did I represent to them?’”
Here’s what: Marvin Williams is a gentleman. Marvin Williams is a teammate.
Marvin Williams is a pro.