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Everywhere I Go I’m Still a Zag

Nigel Williams-Goss discusses life as a professional basketball player, his relationship with the Gonzaga community, and excitement for the upcoming season.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

“I know I’m an NBA player.” There’s no hint of pretense or arrogance when he says it. It’s simply a resolute belief borne from what Nigel Williams-Goss has proven on the basketball court his entire life.

Fresh off completing a stellar debut professional season with KK Partizan in Belgrade, Serbia where he averaged 17.4ppg, 7apg, and 3.5 rpg on the back of tremendous efficiency from the field, Gonzaga’s former All-American guard reflects on where he’s been and where he’s going.

“It has been a crazy past 16 months, the things I’ve gotten to experience, and the development in my game, and the money that comes with being a professional, it’s all just a huge blessing and I’m just really, really happy that all the hard work has paid off, and I’m just really happy about where my career is headed,” says Williams-Goss as he reflects on how much his life has changed after a “really special junior year.” Years of hard work laid the groundwork for him to achieve those accomplishments, but he’s also mindful of how he’s gotten to where he is. “I try to take the time, just because I want to take the time to thank God for the blessings. As busy as everything is, even if I’m just driving from my house to the store I won’t turn on any music or anything and I just try to thank God for the blessings.”

Indeed, the past 16 months have been a whirlwind. It may seem like a lifetime ago now, but it was only April 2017 when Williams-Goss led Gonzaga all the way to the program’s first Final Four and national championship game appearance after a near-perfect regular season. After collecting some well-deserved accolades, including WCC Player of the Year, Second-Team All American, First-Team Academic All-American, and Cousy Award finalist, he was taken by the Jazz in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft. Even though that national championship game was the final time Williams-Goss suited up for Gonzaga, the relationships that come with being a Zag have been ever present as basketball has taken Williams-Goss around the world.

First, it was John Stockton, who endorsed Williams-Goss to Utah Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey. Shortly after the Jazz drafted Williams-Goss, Lindsey disclosed to his new point guard that in all their years of preparing for the draft Stockton had never really endorsed them picking any player. But when Lindsey asked Stockton for some insight on another point guard from Gonzaga, Stockton sang his praises. Of course, Williams-Goss quickly called Stockton to express his thanks, “I did call him up and thank him because I thought that was huge that he would vouch for me.”

More recently, Williams-Goss found himself on the phone again with a trio of former Gonzaga greats as he considered multiple offers from EuroLeague teams, particularly from Olympiacos and Žalgiris. “On the day I made my decision, I was on the phone with Wiltj (Kyle Wiltjer, who played at Olympiacos last season but recently signed with Unicaja Malaga), and I was on the phone with (Kevin) Pangos who was at Zalgiris, and I was on the phone with Jeremy Pargo who played for David Blatt (whom Olympiacos just hired to be head coach and who coached the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2014-16) at Maccabi Tel-Aviv. So I had three guys who had either played for the club or these coaches.” Williams-Goss never played a competitive minute with any of those guys (though his redshirt year did overlap with Wiltjer’s senior season at Gonzaga), but such is the Gonzaga brotherhood that it was natural for him to solicit input from them on a significant decision in his life.

Williams-Goss signed a three-year/$2 million dollar deal with Olympiacos, and will make the move to Athens this fall to team with Blatt who was keen to work with him. “Last year Blatt was actually trying to sign me in the middle of the season, He coached at Darüşşafaka in Turkey and he was trying to sign me in January. He was trying to bring me from Partizan to Turkey, but I didn’t have an in-season buyout so Partizan wanted me to finish up with them.”

Not to be denied, it didn’t take long for Blatt to come calling again. “As soon as he got the Olympiacos job, I was the first player he called which meant a lot to me. To have David Blatt, especially at a club like Olympiacos, for me to be the first player they were trying to sign for this year meant a lot to me. I knew the city and the living situation would be great from talking to Wiltj, and then you know obviously playing for David Blatt will be a great experience.”

The decision to sign a multi-year contract with Olympiacos wasn’t made, though, without discussing the move with the Jazz. When he returned to the U.S. after completing his season in Serbia, Williams-Goss spent a few days in Salt Lake with Lindsey, head coach Quin Snyder and the Jazz coaching staff. “There was definitely a lot of talks about it, it was a tough decision.” Ultimately, however, playing for Olympiacos made the most sense from a basketball and financial standpoint. If Williams-Goss can continue to build on his excellent level of play that he demonstrated for Partizan in the EuroLeague, considered the premier competition in Europe, he’ll be able to position himself for more professional opportunities.

It’s not lost on him that he’s fortunate to be in a situation with a franchise that has been supportive of his overseas play and remains invested in his development. The Jazz kept close tabs throughout the season and sent a congratulatory gift package after he was named MVP of the Serbian Cup, he and Lindsey stayed in touch throughout the season, and both Assistant General Managers flew out to visit him. “I know not every player that a team drafts who goes overseas gets the kind of attention and relationship that I have with the staff in Utah which is really cool,” said Williams-Goss.

More than most NBA franchises, Utah values overseas experience. “If you look at their roster now, almost their entire roster has overseas experience,” stated Williams-Goss, referring to the litany of Jazz players, and even head coach Quin Snyder, who have spent time abroad. Though being drafted was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, Williams-Goss was also realistic about the reality of the roster situation in Salt Lake. “Last year they already had three point guards under contract with [Raul] Neto, [Dante] Exum, and then [Ricky] Rubio. So there really wasn’t a spot. They could have brought me to training camp, but at the end of the day, besides the two-way [contract] there was really no way I could make the roster.” Even if Williams-Goss had opted to fill a two-way spot for his rookie season, he would have likely found himself in the same position again this summer. “Their whole team has had overseas experience, so they were just like, look this is another option and this is something that we put a lot of stock in and we value,” remarked Williams-Goss on his collaboration with the team to propel his move to Europe.

So off to Serbia he went without knowing much about the place he would call home for the next 10 months. “I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know anything about Belgrade and it turned out to be an unbelievable place. The city was amazing, the fans were amazing, and I made some really close—that I would consider lifelong—friends so I had a really good experience and I felt like those were positives that came out of it.”

For Williams-Goss, it wasn’t living in a foreign country or adjusting to a professional league that proved to be the biggest challenge. “The toughest thing was just knowing that I was an NBA player, and I feel like that was just a fact and the reality of the situation from what I had proven. I was going somewhere where I didn’t necessarily feel like I belonged. But at the end of the day I had to accept the situation and just grind and go kill it, and make the most of it.”

He certainly did, building on the progress he made at Gonzaga to make his game more efficient as he shot 49% from the three-point line, 53.7% from inside the arc, and 90% from the free throw line while leading Partizan in scoring, assists, and minutes. Now paired with a head coach in David Blatt, widely regarded as one of the best coaches in international basketball, Williams-Goss is poised to make another leap in his game.

Though his career has taken him thousands of miles away from Gonzaga, it’s clear that its community and program are never far from heart. Speaking fondly of his time in Spokane, Williams-Goss states, “I was just honored to represent the team while I was there. Everywhere I go I’m still a Zag so I try to represent the University well. I just think it was a special relationship with the fans, and even with Coach Few, you know I only played for Coach Few for one year but obviously our relationship is as strong as it can be.”

In search of an opportunity to remain connected with the community and give him a reason to return to Gonzaga each summer, Williams-Goss will be back in Spokane from August 8-10 for his second youth basketball camp (registration is open) after a successful inaugural event in 2017. Even though his time at Gonzaga was limited, the decision to host his camp in Spokane was a no-brainer, “I was only there for two years, but I really felt like I was there for my whole college career with the support that the community showed me, so it was an easy decision for me because I wanted to interact with the youth in the area and help in any way I can.” Don’t expect this to be a camp hosted by Williams-Goss in name only either, as he plans to be on the floor with the kids all day long for the entire duration of the camp, providing instruction on drills he does personally, film breakdown, five-on-five play, and some guest speakers (Mark Few came by last year).

Williams-Goss keeps an eye on how the basketball team is doing too as he enjoys being on the fan’s side of the program these days, “They definitely have all the pieces and have earned the right to have that preseason top-5 ranking, because on paper there’s not too many teams that can match up with what they have returning and what they’re bringing in.” As the driving force of Gonzaga’s first Final Four team, his advice for the 2018-19 team is pretty simple, “Just play well when you get to the Final Four. The key for them is just to block out those expectations or preseason rankings and just focus on being the best team that they can be.”

That approach worked pretty well for Williams-Goss and the Zags two years ago. He’s hoping it works again.