Lou Williams looks back on his last season with the Atlanta Hawks and calls it a "throw-away." His first one with the Toronto Raptors, however, looks like an opportunity.
The 28-year-old guard is one of five newcomers to make this season's Raptor roster, and he's perhaps the one who could contribute most. He had been a key part of the Atlanta Hawks since arriving from the Philadelphia 76ers prior to the 2012-13 season because of his knack for scoring off the bench. But after a knee injury in early 2013 and a long layoff, Williams wasn't the same. The Hawks dumped salary in the off-season and traded him to the Raptors.
Now finally healthy again and welcomed by a close-knit Toronto squad, Williams is highly motivated.
"The difference is like night and day, because I'm healthy now," Williams said at practice as Toronto prepares to opens its new season Wednesday against the team that traded him. "Anytime you have a chance to prove somebody wrong, that's fun."
Williams grew up in Snellville, Georgia, where he was a four-time All-State selection at South Gwinnett High School, was named Georgia's "Mr. Basketball" as a senior and won the 2005 Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award as the nation's top high school player.
He declared for the 2005 NBA Draft right out of high school, and the 76ers selected him in the second round, 45th overall. Throughout his seven seasons there, he was often a Sixth Man of the Year nominee.
So when Williams then signed with the Hawks in his home state, it seemed like the perfect storyline. But a few months into his first season there, during a January game versus the Brooklyn Nets, he snapped the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. After a surgery and 10 months off, he wasn't the same when he returned. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer gave him inconsistent minutes, and Williams had career lows in many categories. The guy who had always been good for a late-game burst of points just couldn't find his rhythm.
"It was very difficult, it was the first time I had a major sports injury," said Williams, entering his 10th NBA season. "I'm happy to be over that, so happy it's in the past, and I'm looking forward to being successful again."
The knock against Williams before was his lack of defensive intensity, but that's where he has amazed the Raptors since they traded John Salmons to Atlanta for him and Brazilian youngster Lucas (Bebe) Nogueira in the summer.
"I'm pleasantly surprised with his defensive focus and effort – that was a big question mark ever since he was back in Philly," said Toronto coach Dwane Casey. "His health has been great, and that is a big difference between this year and last year. We've really been impressed with his team defence and focus, and him picking up on our schemes as quickly as he has."
He's been embraced by the tight core that won a franchise-record 48 games last season and gripped the city with the club's first appearance in the NBA playoffs since 2008.
"He's a hell of a scorer and plays at his own tempo, no one speeds him up," said Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan. "He's just Cool Lou when he's out there with the ball. I've always been a fan of his before he was on our team. It's definitely great to have a guy like him to come off the bench and help us."
The undersized shooting guard was intrigued by the scrappy Raptors during the playoffs and related to their underdog mentality. He liked how raw general manager Masai Ujiri had been when he yelled 'F– Brooklyn' to a crowd of thousands before Game 1 versus the Nets.
"They take their 'We The North' stuff really, really seriously. They had a lot of success last year, and they're still not being talked about, and they take that very personal," said Williams. "I'm coming in with the mindset that I want to help, to be part of that culture and tradition they're building."