The Grobari was the most shocking part.
After two seasons playing in the Pac-12 and two years at Gonzaga, where The Kennel is renowned as one of the best student sections in college basketball, Nigel Williams-Goss was still not prepared for what he was going to encounter playing for KK Partizan, a Serbian club in Belgrade, one of the few European cities that is as crazy about basketball as they are soccer.
Grobari is what the Partizan fans call themselves — as in, “I’m Grobari” — and they support both Partizan’s basketball and soccer teams. Rabidly. When they behave, they’re called Ultras. When they don’t, which is fairly often, they’re referred to as Hooligans.
“I’ve see the flares being lit in the gym,” Williams-Goss told NBC Sports in a wide-ranging interview last month. “I’ve had times where I had to cover my head with a towel because the fans start throwing lighters and coins because they disagree with a call.”
“I remember one time we were playing a team and as they were warming up, our fans just threw like 100 rolls of toilet paper so they couldn’t warm up. They kept having to sweep off the toilet paper, and then they would throw rolls again.”
That is where Williams-Goss, coming off of a first-team All-American season for a team that lost in the national title game, spent his first season as a professional, wearing the badge of the highest college player selected in the 2017 NBA Draft that did not get a guaranteed contract or wind up as a two-way player for the organization that drafted him.
There may not be a better example of just how hard it is to sign one of the 510 available NBA contracts than Williams-Goss.
His amateur career was as decorated as anyone in recent memory. After becoming the first, and still only, player to spend four seasons as a member of Findlay Prep’s basketball program, where he won two national titles, Williams-Goss was named a McDonald’s All-American and played in the Jordan Brand All-American game. He won a gold medal with USA Basketball playing for the U19s. He spent two all-Pac-12 seasons at Washington before transferring to Gonzaga, where he led the Zags to a nearly-undefeated regular season, a No. 1 ranking for the majority of the year and a trip to the national title game. He was named a first-team All-American for his troubles, becoming one of just five players in Division I history to be named an academic All-American and a first-team All-American.
After that national title game loss, after completing an undergraduate degree in Psychology and starting in on a masters in Organizational Leadership, Williams-Goss left school with a year of eligibility still on the table.
He was selected by the Utah Jazz with the 55th pick.
His lifelong dream of hearing his name called during the NBA draft had come true. The reward was being forced to fight for a roster spot on a team with three established NBA point guards and Donovan Mitchell, a lottery pick that turned into the best player in the draft class.
“That was an emotional night for me,” Williams-Goss said. “Because I know that I did everything I could possibly do to put myself in a better position than that.”
“I had proven myself every step of the way. For me, it was weird, because [NBA teams] had seen [me] perform at a high level on the biggest stages my entire career, and then to fall that far in the draft and watch guys that were nowhere near as accomplished as I was get picked in front of me was really tough.”
He had to face reality: The NBA draft is all about potential — some combination of youth, athletic ability and physical tools — and shooting. Williams-Goss was a redshirt junior when he left school and 23 years old before the season started. He’s a below-average athlete by the standards that come with being an NBA point guard, and in four years he shot 33.1 percent from three on nearly 300 attempts.
That combination is far from ideal, but a death knell for his NBA dreams it is not.
Because the Utah Jazz still want him, or at least they are not yet ready to dispose of him. He wasn’t relegated to Europe as much as he was placed there, a draft-and-stash prospect. He’s stayed in regular contact with people in the Jazz front office and, after winning an MVP award and a tournament title in February, he was sent a care package from Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsay. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the Jazz brass believed that spending a year overseas would benefit Williams-Goss more than if he had remained stateside as a G League player or on a two-way contract.
So after playing in the NBA summer league, Williams-Goss was faced with a decision: Accept an invite to training camp, where the Jazz had one roster spot available and four point guards on the roster, or get his passport ready. He met face-to-face with Lindsay and talked through all of his options, and all parties agreed that it was best to head to Europe.
“In my first year as a professional, it was important that I continue to develop and further my growth,” Williams-Goss said.
To do that, he needed to play.
Partizan is one of the most storied clubs in all of European basketball.
A powerhouse in Serbia, Partizan has sent the likes of Vlade Divac, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nikola Peković and Jan Vesely to the NBA, and they’ve won more trophies than any other club in Serbia: 21 Serbian League championships, 14 Serbian Cups, six Adriatic League titles and the 1992 EuroLeague title, the most prestigious of the bunch.
But prior to Williams-Goss’ arrival in Belgrade, Partizan had been stumbling. It had been four years since the Black And Whites had won one of the four competitions they play in annually, an eternity for the Grobari. To make matters worse, their failures in the Adriatic League, which features teams from the seven countries that previously made up Yugoslavia and is considered one of the very best in the world outside of the NBA, coincided with archrival Red Star-Belgrade was representing Serbia in the EuroLeague, basketball’s equivalent to soccer’s Champions League; Luka Doncic was recently named the EuroLeague MVP.
And, as it would turn out, Williams-Goss would become the savior Partizan was looking for.
Despite beginning the year playing for a coach that spoke no English while playing abroad for the first time in his life on a team that was, and still is, in financial disarray, the Gonzaga product still managed to put together a masterful season, averaging 16.9 points and 6.8 assists across all competitions.
But most importantly, he was the MVP of the Korać Cup — the Serbian League’s equivalent of a conference tournament — as Partizan won their first trophy in four years by defeating the reigning evil empire, Red Star, in the finals.
Williams-Goss had 23 points and seven assists in the title game. He had become a sensation in Belgrade, living up to the burden that came with the All-American tag. The Grobari knew who he was before he showed up in their city. With notoriety comes expectation, and Williams-Goss handled it better than anyone could have asked for.
“There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders from fans even though I was a rookie,” he said. Partizan has always had a reputation for being a place that young talents can go to shine, and Williams-Goss was the latest — and the rare American — to be burdened with that honor. “The success of a season is determined by how many trophies you can rack up in a year, because it’s not like college or the NBA where there’s only one final trophy. There’s a lot of different leagues. Not having a single trophy for almost four years, and then to do it this year with such a young group being led by an American rookie, was special.”
And he wasn’t kidding.
One afternoon, before the season had come to an end and Williams-Goss had returned to the states, he was walking past a cafe on a Belgrade street when he was recognized. Three of the employees of that cafe came sprinting out and grabbed Williams-Goss before he was out of sight.
“They made me come in and made me a cake with my number on it,” he said.
That’s one way to say thank you.
Williams-Goss has some options heading into the summer.
The word is out about how well he adjusted to playing European basketball, and EuroLeague suitors have already come calling. There’s a market for him in Europe, one where he should be able to double what was reported to be a $130,000 salary; keep in mind, for most European teams, the salary they pay is take home money. They’ll cover things like rent, travel and even taxes.
As good as that sounds, the dream isn’t to play in the EuroLeague.
The dream is the NBA, and the Utah Jazz still own the rights to Williams-Goss. Mitchell isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and Rubio still has another year on his contract. Exum and Neto are both at the end of their rookie contracts, and while the expectation is that the Jazz will try to sign Exum to a longer deal — he’s been a very effective piece when his body doesn’t fail him — should Williams-Goss head to training camp with the Jazz, he’d likely be competing with Neto for a spot.
If he makes the team, great. If he’s cut, suddenly he’s a free agent and available for other NBA teams to sign, but that comes with a significant amount of risk as well. European teams typically make their signings earlier in the calendar than that, which would make the market for Williams-Goss abroad smaller and, potentially, less lucrative.
He’s going to have some decisions to make, that much is certain.
But this is not a situation where he is going to be choosing between eight-figure deals and deciding which NBA city he wants to live. No matter how you slice it, Williams-Goss is a fringe NBA player right now despite the fact that the former Burger Boy and first-team All-American just finished an outstanding rookie campaign for one of the most storied clubs in Europe.
He knows first-hand just how hard it is to get to the NBA, which is why he was so frustrated seeing how many players without any chance of getting drafted announced their intentions to test the waters of the NBA draft this spring.
“If you know that you’re not that you’re really on that cusp and it is just for feedback, I don’t understand the point of announcing,” he said. “To me, it just looks like you’re doing it for the attention and for the non-basketball knowing peers and other people to think, ‘Aww man, this guy that we know is close to going to the NBA.'”
“There’s 60 picks,” he added, “but the game is international. There’s 60 picks for kids all over the world. It’s definitely one of the toughest jobs to get. But people know how tough it is, which is why this opportunity of announcing they can test the waters kind of gives them a feeling that they can show other people that they’re closer to that reality than they might actually.”
Williams-Goss was one of those kids three years ago. When he left Washington, he had the chance to put his name into the draft but declined. He knew he wasn’t ready. After two more years at Gonzaga, completing his degree and jump-starting his work on a masters, it was time.
“I’ve put myself in a great position moving forward,” Williams-Goss said, “whether that’s the NBA or an opportunity to move up in Europe.”
Hopefully, wherever he lands, he won’t have batteries being thrown at his head.