NBA Draft: Santa Clara’s Jalen Williams goes No. 12 overall to Oklahoma City

The post-season ascension of Santa Clara guard Jalen Williams is complete.

Williams became the highest drafted player in school history Thursday night when the Oklahoma City Thunder made him the 12th pick in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft. That’s three spots better than Steve Nash, the Canadian guard who went No. 15 to the Phoenix Suns in 1996 and went on to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award twice.

The selection was a minor surprise, given a sampling of 10 mock drafts had Williams going between No. 14 to No. 20, with Atlanta the most popular destination at No. 16 in four mocks, and Houston at No. 17 with three.

In Oklahoma City, Williams joins West Coast Conference rival Chet Holmgren, the 7-foot forward out of Gonzaga who went No. 2 overall behind top pick Paolo Banchero of Duke.

“He’s a guy that made a huge jump throughout the course of his career,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “He was very productive. People call him a late-bloomer, but he’s continued to improve throughout his basketball life.”

Williams wasn’t considered a lottery pick (top 14) when he decided to enter the draft following a junior season with the Broncos when he averaged 18.0 points per game and was an All-WCC choice under coach Herb Sendek. However, after workouts with NBA teams and his performance at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago in May, Williams began to generate some buzz because of his physical gifts as well as his performance in scrimmages with other draft-eligible players.

The Thunder, 24-58 last season and out of the playoff hunt, also reportedly traded for Ousmane Dieng, a 6-10 forward from France was taken by the New York Knicks at No. 11. ESPN reported the trade of Dieng to Oklahoma City.

Williams’ performance at the combine added credibility to all he accomplished at Santa Clara under the cloak of relative anonymity.

“I don’t think there’s a player that moved up higher than him since the combine,” NBA.com analyst Steve Smith said in a pre-draft show. “He’s athletic, understands how to play off pick and rolls, has a good knack and a good feel to score. I think he has good size, but what I really like about him is he can catch and shoot.”

Longtime analyst and WCC observer Dan Belloumini said Williams’ position versatility should enable him to produce right away.

“He can play the point, although I don’t know if that will be his natural position,” Belloumini said. “You can play him at off-guard. If you’ve got two guards in the game he can play small forward. He’s one of those versatile, all-around players that’s going to fit in well. He’s going to be a good all-around player and an immediate contributor.”

Belloumini is interested to see how it plays out over the course of Williams’ career.

“Nobody realized how great Steve Nash was going to be — a kid out of Canada,” Belloumini said. “How could you ever predict he would be an MVP in the NBA? How about Stephen Curry? How could you predict that? Minnesota took two guards ahead of him in the draft.”

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