Ear to ear: How Jaylin Williams’ smile lights up all things Thunder

Ear to ear: How Jaylin Williams’ smile lights up all things Thunder

Backup Thunder center Jaylin Williams has a world-class smile. World-class in size, world-class in endurance. And world-class in impact on those around him.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 20, 2024, 9:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 20, 2024, 9:00am CDT

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Just to prove he’s not The Joker, that his seemingly never-ending smile isn’t painted on, Jaylin Williams breaks the pre-game huddle most Thunder game nights and, with a straight face, walks over to Thunder sideline reporter Nick Gallo.

I know, I know. Hard to believe Arkansas Williams ever has a straight face.

But it’s true. Williams shelves his smile for the briefest of times and for the best of reasons. Williams wants to put a smile on the face of every Thunder fan watching the Bally Sports broadcast.

So while Gallo delivers his pre-tipoff analysis, Williams gives Gallo a quick shoulder massage, pat and dusting of the sportcoat. Thunder fans sitting at home on a cold winter night cackle while Gallo keeps comparing the high-powered Thunder offense to whoever happens to be on the schedule that night.

And Williams goes back to smiling.

There are smiles, there are Cheshire Cat smiles, there are Tom Cruise smiles, and then there is a Jaylin Williams smile.

The backup Thunder center has a world-class smile. World-class in size, world-class in endurance. And world-class in impact on those around him.

“Lights up a room,” Mark Daigneault said of Williams’ smile and personality. “He’s a pleasure.”

Williams smiles after taking a charge or shooting a foul shot. Williams smiles while guarding teammates in practice or walking into the arena. Williams smiles in warmups and postgame.

He smiles all the time.

“I’ve kind of always been a smiling person, a happy kid,” Williams said the other day after a Thunder practice. “Really, my dad just always instilled in me, have fun while you’re out there.”

Williams’ smile is as wide as Julia Roberts’ and just as deep. It’s a mystery why Williams doesn’t have a massive endorsement contract for some teeth whitener or orthodontist. His face could launch a thousand ships.

Williams usually remembers to not smile during the heat of battle, or when the Thunder has lost, but it requires concentration. The smile comes easy, the attitude natural.

“I try to have fun with everything,” Williams said. “I try to control what I can control, and everything else I just try to be happy about it. I don’t let stuff affect me.  Don’t let something 30 minutes ago affect me in the next 30 minutes. Always try to be happy throughout everything.”

Sounds like a good way to live. Sounds like a good person to be around.

Stress-reliever

Considering the Thunder is one of the best teams in the NBA, this roster is not overly serious-minded. Arkansas Williams’ name-twin, Jalen Williams, often is goofy. Superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is chill. Josh Giddey is Australian.

“I think you can’t go into games too stressed,” Arkansas Williams said. “You can always use a little fun joke. You can always take your mind off stress. Cause if you let the stress and anxiety control your life, it’s hard to do things.

“I try to bring a fun attitude to practice. I’ll be the first one in here yelling, ‘let’s go, let’s go,’ or whatever we’re doing. I try to yell, joke with everybody. I think it brings another level of fun to practice. Having the great team that we have, these guys match the energy. It’s just a fun thing we’ve started.”

Strange how a second-year, 21-year-old, backup center from Fort Smith, Arkansas, who averages 12.5 minutes and 3.8 points a game, can become so valuable to a squad. But Williams has.

“Nothing but positive energy,” said teammate Lindy Waters. “Somebody that’s always trying to create positive vibes in the locker room. He’s always joking around, making things light, out of any situation. You need that in locker rooms.

“Planes, dinners, bus rides, any occasion, any locker room. He’s always cracking jokes, he’s always laughing, he always has great energy.”

It’s a long season. Training camp opens the first of October. A solid playoff run goes into May. Lots of downtime and dead time.

A personality who enhances the tenor of a room, be it angry or somber or disappointed, is worth its weight in Nikes. More than 12.5 minutes or 3.8 points a game.

“He’s carved up this very very communal niche inside the team, in an impressive way,” Daigneault said. “He’s right in the thick of everything. In the locker room, on the bus, Chet’s (Holmgren) jersey retirement (in Minnesota), he’s just in the middle of everything.

“The guys love him. The guys love him. I think it’s because he’s a great guy, a great person. He’s got a positivity to him that’s very contagious.”

Williams knows there are times he shouldn’t be so jovial. Knows there are times when he’s supposed to be serious — after a loss, a tense moment in the game, when a coach has delivered a do-better speech — so he says he tries to avoid eye contact with teammates because he tends to put a smile on their face without even saying anything.

“It just comes,” Williams said. “But my teammates know, I’m out there having fun.

“Like if I take a charge, they’re going to come over to me and say something to make me laugh. If I’m on the court, and I snatch a rebound from somebody and I yell at them, they’re gonna yell back at me something funny. It’s just having fun out there on the court.”

Jan 31, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jaylin Williams (6) celebrates with guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) after he made a basket against the Denver Nuggets during the second half at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) and forward Jaylin Williams (6) celebrate during a Jan. 31 win over Denver at Paycom Center. (Alonzo Adams/USA Today Sports)

When Williams lost his smile

Williams is the first player of Vietnamese descent to make the NBA. His mother, Linda, was a Vietnamese refugee who came to the U.S. in the 1975 evacuation of Saigon.

Williams says he gets his smile from both his mother and father. Figures. A smile that big had to be the product of multiple sources.

“I think both my parents have great smiles, too,” Williams said. “We all have it.”

Williams said his smile is a natural result of the attitude instilled by his father. Michael Williams taught his son to enjoy life.

“Me and my dad can joke around about everything,” Jaylin Williams said. “Me and my brothers. I just always kind of had this smile. I try to bring it with me wherever I go.”

But Williams admits his smile has occasionally faded. Particularly his freshman year at Arkansas, early in the 2020-21. He twice never even got off the bench for Razorback games. In a three-game span in late December, Williams played 10 minutes combined.

“I was coming from being a 4-star player, No. 1 player in the state, to not playing, and I just kind of lost myself,” he said. “Then my grandma ended up passing away, and I kind of lost myself through all that.”

But then-Arkansas graduate assistant Jeremiah Bonsu bonded with Williams. Bonsu, now a video coordinator with the Houston Rockets, stayed on Williams. Bonsu brought back the smile.

“He kind of pushed me to keep doing me,” Williams. “We stayed in the gym, joking around, he kind of brought back life for me. I tried to smile more. And that’s when I started playing good again.”

The old spirit returned, and soon enough Williams was a second-round draft pick of the Thunder in 2022. He ended up playing 49 games as a rookie, starting 36, shooting 40.7% from 3-point range and leading the NBA in charges drawn, 43. His playing time has decreased this season, with Holmgren’s emergence as a difference-making big man, but Williams remains valuable, and not just because he’s a bringer of joy.

Respect for his game

Williams knows his role. He knows his personality and spirit matters to the Thunder. He knows his gift is rare.

“I think I’m able to talk to people,” Williams said. “It’s easier to conversate with certain people, just because I’m able to bring that joyfulness and be able to laugh with people, whoever it is. I think I’m able to start a conversation and kind of just bring the smile out of them as well.”

And that extends to the court. NBA games are full of celebrations. Most of them seem to stem from a root of ego. Pride. Boastfulness. Look-at-me stuff.

But Arkansas Williams seems to celebrate joy. Just watching him play appears to spread a message that, hey, this is a basketball game, and it’s supposed to be fun, and all kinds of guys are doing all kinds of amazing things, and if that can’t put a smile on our face, what can?

“They know I’m out there having fun,” Williams said of his teammates. “I try to push those guys to have fun with me.

“Like Shai, he’ll be in the game, and he’ll hit a tough bucket or something, and I’ll yell at him or make a joke, and he looks at me all serious, then he cracks a little smile on the side. So always try to bring a lightness to everything we do.”

Even opponents can be drawn in. Williams said no foe ever has quizzed him about his smile, but he’s noticed a thawing in the competitive wall that naturally arises between combatants.

“A lot times in the NBA, if you’re out there laughing and joking around, guys will be drawn to like say, ‘what’s up?’” Williams said. “You boxing somebody out, and we make a joke before we line up, they’re like, ‘hey, what’s up, bro, you’re good.’ So maybe. But I’m really not out there joking with them, I’m joking with my teammates.”

The teammates take to it not only because it’s natural and genuine, but because they know Williams’ game, too. He’s an undersized center, a second-round pick, who has worked himself into a good NBA player.

In the play-in tournament last April, Williams started at New Orleans and played 32 minutes, posting eight points and eight rebounds, mostly battling giant Pelican Jonas Valanciunas. The Thunder won 123-118 and outscored the Pels by 20 points with Williams on the court. Two nights later, Williams started again in the play-in tournament at Minnesota; he had eight points, six rebounds and 3-of-5 shooting, but the Thunder was rolled 120-95 by the Timberwolves.

“He’s a bad-ass competitor,” Daigneault said. “He’s a fearless, tough, competitive guy. Really, really impressive intangibles. And I think that matters, too.

“You can be smiling all the time, but when the popcorn’s popping, you’re running under your bed, it’s not going to get you very far in an NBA locker room. And he’s not like that at all. He brings the juice.”

The juice and the jubilation, the spirit and the smile. Jaylin Williams lights up a room, be it a professional basketball locker room or the massive Paycom Center. Don’t ever underestimate the bringer of joy.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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