After a successful debut season in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, Derrick Williams signed for perennial title contender Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul and has fit in nicely playing for coaching legend Zeljko Obradovic. The European basketball experience has been to Williams's liking in terms of the style of play, the cities he's visited and his coach and teammates at Fenerbahce. Along the way, he has become a reference for other big names from across the ocean – including several former NBA teammates – to learn more about life in Europe and the EuroLeague as they ponder big decisions.
Looking back at when he was first contacted in the summer of 2018 about signing for FC Bayern Munich, "I really wasn't sure what to expect," Williams said. Among the people that he sought advice from were former EuroLeague champion Ekpe Udoh; another former Fenerbahce player, Jason Thompson; and former EuroLeague player in Germany, P.J. Tucker. "They said it was going to be a great time. Embrace it and if you embrace it, you'll get everything you want out of it."
Even though Bayern came up short of its goal to reach the 2019 EuroLeague Playoffs, Williams called his first season in the competition "exciting" and "a good experience."
"Bayern is a young team. We won a lot of games. We won the most games for a German League team ever, so we did accomplish some of our goals. It was fun, it was good to go around Europe and play against some of these great teams that I've heard about since I was a little kid. Being able to go to Istanbul, Greece, Moscow, parts of Italy... It was a great time."
"If you embrace it, you'll get everything you want."
As a veteran of seven seasons in the NBA plus time in the Chinese League, Williams noted the greater physicality of European basketball as something he had to adjust to, though he called it "a good thing."
"There's not too many smaller fouls being called and things like that," Williams explained. "They're just kind of letting guys play and I think that's good for the game."
The bigger differences for him were off the court. Williams said he enjoyed getting to see places in Europe and hopes to get to see much more this season with Fenerbahce since the weather ruined some of his plans the first time.
"Moscow, when we went with Bayern, was so cold that I really couldn't even go outside! That's a city that I'm looking forward to," Williams said. "St. Petersburg. I've been to Paris once before, but I'm looking forward to Lyon. I haven't really been anywhere in France other than Paris. There are a bunch of nice cities that I'm really excited to go to, but those have stood out so far."
In his first season in Europe, Williams averaged 13.4 points and 4.2 rebounds in 29 EuroLeague games for Bayern and helped the team stay in the playoff hunt until the penultimate round of the regular season. He then helped Bayern capture the German League crown before returning to the United States for the summer. Once there, not only did he ponder his future, but Williams began to receive many calls from former teammates and acquaintances asking about playing in the EuroLeague.
"A lot of them are just unsure," Williams said in explaining their concerns. "They're really unsure about how it is in Europe. A lot of them maybe have traveled, but they've never lived, so it could be much different than the way it is at home."
Among the many American newcomers to the EuroLeague this season, Williams can vouch for the talent a few of them bring: "Nik Stauskas I played with when he was a rookie in Sacramento. Me, him and Jimmer [Fredette] were on the same team. Wes Johnson I played with my [NBA] rookie season," Williams said. "I'm really excited to watch them play here and be on the court against them. These guys are really good basketball players. Just because it doesn't necessarily work out in the NBA doesn't mean they're bad players. So you'll see a lot of talented guys come over and really put on a good show."
Williams said that he has fond memories of his time in Munich and expects big things from his former team and teammates in the future. "I guarantee you in five years we'll be talking about [Bayern] a little differently," he explained. "They'll have a different mindset as well."
As much as he enjoyed his time in Munich, at age 28, Williams has the fire inside to win now, which was a main reason that he decided to join Fenerbahce.
"I don't think I could have picked a better place. This is a great city, great team, great staff and everybody has great character and great personality," Williams said. "As soon as you walk into the building, [winning a championship] is what you're thinking of. You're practicing every day, working hard for a EuroLeague title, not just to be in the EuroLeague and compete. There's a difference between competing and winning a EuroLeague title. That's why I wanted to come here. If you look at the roster, not so many teams have [our talent]. If you put it all together, it could be scary."
"Whoever holds that trophy up is all that matters."
Before signing, he spoke to Coach Obradovic and that conversation helped Williams make up his mind. "He told me he wants me to be one of the focal points of the offense," Williams relayed. "Obviously, it's not just a one-man show. We have a bunch of guys that can score the basketball and play multiple positions, so Obradovic is really putting me in a lot of different spots."
On the topic of his coach, Williams admitted that some of the things he's already experienced with Obradovic have been a first. "He’s really respected. No matter where you go, they are taking more pictures with him than anyone else on our team! I've never had that before," Williams said. In recalling their preseason trip to play in Greece, he shared: "Obviously he won with Panathinaikos. I understand, but they respect him like he's their coach right now! He deserves it. Whenever you win in different places, you earn respect."
And for Williams, that's what it all boils down to. "The main goal is to win. These guys want to win. They brought me here with open arms. They want me to help because at the end of the day, whoever holds that trophy up is all that matters."