Tuesday, July 23, 2024

NBA Draft: How a brotherly bond and brutal injury turned Cody Williams into 2024’s most compelling prospect

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — There was a look on young Cody Williams‘ face that his mother will never forget. This would have been when Cody was 6, maybe 7. It often came on the basketball courts at Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base, where the family spent their Saturdays. Cody, big sister Jasmine and big brother Jalen are the children of Nicole and Ron Williams, who met while serving in the military in the early 1990s. Nicole was an Air Force officer for 13 years, Ron held active duty for 24. 

On those bustling Saturdays on the base, the family would bounce from the gym to the basketball courts to the bowling alley before streaming the aisles of the commissary, shopping for groceries.

“It was pretty fun. A lot of memories,” Nicole said. You can practically feel the beam of her smile over the phone. As she remembers the bigger things, some smaller moments — that look on Cody’s face — indelibly resurface. Cody and Jalen’s fraternal bond was nurtured by sports, basketball most of all. Jalen, who is three and a half years older than Cody and one of the better young players in the NBA, was already taking to hoops in a serious way before middle school. Sure enough, little bro wanted to be like that. So, Cody watched Jalen with deep intent.

“He soaked it in. He looked up to his brother, admired him,” Nicole said. 

That’s how this story started. But as Cody got bigger, his look shifted. Where he once wanted to be like his brother, he soon wished to be better, and in his own way. Cody said that by the time he was 10, something shifted in his perspective. Jalen remembers it the same way. 

“He caught on to everything twice as fast as I did when I was his age,” Jalen said. 

Ron and Nicole saw how their boys would feed off each other, constantly in challenge mode. Cody with that look: watching, learning, plotting.

“It was always competitive,” Cody said. “When I was younger, like when I was really young, it [felt like] just the older brother being annoying, just picking on me. But he was really trying to help.”

They took to basketball early, though they were never pushed into it. In fact, Cody’s first memories of competition with Jalen came in the pool. In elementary school, they’d swim laps in the 5 a.m. hour, racing on 100-meter splits.

“And I’ve never done that again,” Cody said. “That was torture, especially waking up early on summer break.”

Basketball took hold over all other activities. From a young age both boys were clearly talented. Cody got better because Jalen never let up.

“When I went into high school, that’s when he got old enough to where we could play a little bit, and even during the drills he could see how hard I was going,” Jalen said. “I felt like that pushed him that way. I’m competitive too, so that pushed us both. My parents did a good job of making sure it was always fun. It was fun competition but we were always competing, getting better. It kept us grounded.”

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Jalen Williams, left, and brother Cody bonded through basketball from a young age. Nicole Williams

Ironically, despite having an outdoor hoop at the house, the boys seldom played on it. Competitive ball was saved for indoors, at gyms and in climate-controlled spaces where they wouldn’t scuff their shoes or risk scraping knees. If they played outside, that meant hopping in the family pool to hoop, where sibling battles were mandatory.

“We could never be in the pool and just kick it,” Nicole said. “It’s someone’s getting dunked on, parents vs. kids, shooting contests. We were never in the pool with them without playing basketball. That never, ever happened.” 

The Williamses could have never dreamed those busy mornings on the base and splash battles in the pool would lead to what will materialize Wednesday night, when they’ll make their second trip to the Barclays Center in two years’ time and once again have a Green Room table with the family name on a placard. Cody, a likely top-10 pick, is about to officially join Jalen in the NBA as members of a rare club: not only brothers who made the league, but lottery selections.


What hasn’t been publicly revealed until this story is the extent to which Cody Williams has rehabbed to get back into healthy playing shape for the first time in more than seven months. He endured a trio of injuries — from head to limb to foot — in his one season at Colorado. While helping Colorado make an NCAA Tournament push, Cody (of his own volition) played with an injury that needlessly endangered his future and potentially damaged his draft stock.

Those ailments, his diligent recovery from them — combined with how well his brother has adapted to the pros — have made Cody one of the most interesting prospects in this draft class.

The fourth-ranked recruit in the Class of 2023, Williams was the highest-rated player to ever commit to the Buffaloes. He’s the uncommon case of a one-and-doner who cruised under the radar at a high-major program — yet will still go in the lottery. Usually, if a five-star player is going to be a top-10 pick after one year in college, they’ve got a pretty big profile. That’s not the case with Williams, who missed 13 games and didn’t start the final six contests at Colorado.

Cody was tagged as a high-level talent from his early days in high school, but his five-star status really only aligned in correlation to Jalen’s rise as an NBA prospect in the spring of 2022. In a symbiotic way, the brothers were uplifting each other’s reputations, which was punctuated by Jalen becoming one of the more shocking rags-to-riches lottery-pick stories in modern NBA history. After that happened, Cody became an even bigger target and wound up being the hunted for two-plus years. He handled that well; his Perry High team in Arizona won back-to-back 6A state titles. Williams also played on the 2023 Men’s U19 USA National Team.

At Colorado, though, he never really took off. Williams’ averages were pedestrian for a five-star recruit: 11.9 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 71.4% as a foul shooter in 28.1 minutes per game. His 3-point shooting was good (41.5%), albeit with limited sample size (just 41 attempts in 24 games).

Injuries held him back.

The first was a wrist fracture suffered against Pepperdine on Dec. 4, 2023. He sat for a month and missed seven games. Even then, the return felt a little rushed. When Williams came back vs. California on Jan. 10 he logged 16 points in 38 minutes with five turnovers, four fouls and shot 5-of-13 from the field. 

Three weeks later, Cody took an elbow to the face in practice on Feb. 1 and broke his left orbital bone. It took nearly a week for double vision and blurriness to subside, though he kept those details private. He had to don a mask while playing and his efficiency numbers dipped. 

“He played hurt when a lot of guys in his draft range/tier would not have played,” Nicole Williams told CBS Sports.

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Colorado

An orbital fracture led to Cody wearing a mask for part of the season. His production dipped as a result. USATSI

“I think it speaks to his competitive nature,” Jalen said. “He was fighting through a lot of that, and we got him to sit down and heal from that, so I think a lot of people really missed that part of it.”

The first two injuries were aggravating, but the third was the most damaging. Williams sprained his right ankle in a road win against Utah on Feb. 24, badly hurting himself after landing on a defender’s foot.

“It doesn’t look good on camera, I’m not gonna lie. It was a nasty little ankle injury,” Cody said. “I had some stressed ligaments, I had some bone bruises, two bone fragments in my foot.”

It was the worst kind of ankle damage: a complete ligament tear. Grade 3. That would have ended the season/college career for the majority of players expected to go in the top 20 of a forthcoming draft. Not Cody, though in retrospect that decision became controversial. He missed the final four games of the regular season but opted to return for the Pac-12 Tournament — doing so while significantly hindered but nonetheless after Colorado’s medical team cleared him.

“Some people were maybe like, ‘You should think about your future,’ and it was like, ‘I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about trying to win a Pac-12 championship and make a tournament run,'” Williams said. “I wanted to get out there and play. I love basketball. So once they told me [I could play] and it was a green light for me … you can’t tell me not to play.”

Williams played six games over an 11-day span (Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments) and averaged just 6.7 points while on a minutes restriction. He helped Colorado go from bubble team to making the Pac-12 title game to squeezing into the NCAAs (and winning two games) before falling by four to Marquette. As badly as he wanted in, it was evident he wasn’t close to the player he was blossoming into three months prior. 

“I wish I was 100% healthy for the tournament,” Williams said, adding, “sprinting up and down the floor, I felt like an old man running down the court.” 

Cody would send pictures of his purple foot to his family members. He never talked publicly about the pain and held the severity of his injury extremely close to the vest.

In mid-April, Dr. Richard Ferkle, a Los Angeles-based orthopedist who also works with the NBA and is considered among the best in his field, examined Williams’ MRI from late February. What he saw was damage that, in his medical opinion, should have kept Cody from returning for the rest of Colorado’s season. A Grade 3 sprain of this extent takes months to properly heal. Instead, Cody and Colorado chanced it — and fortunately avoided further injury in the process. 

“From a brother perspective, I think it’s admirable, it’s how we were raised,” Jalen said. “There were no excuses in our household. But to shed light on the situation, he was not healthy for the back half of the season and definitely should not have been playing on the ankle.”

A second injury in that area might have sidelined Cody for close to a year. As Colorado became one of the most interesting bubble teams, its star freshman was putting millions of dollars in future earnings on the line.

“Do I feel like that whole situation could have been handled a whole lot better? Come on, of course,” Nicole Williams told CBS Sports. “Am I going to go after anyone? Of course not. Do I think things could have been handled better with better communication? Of course.” 

Cody isn’t resentful after the fact and he proudly admits he wanted a shot to experience the NCAA Tournament. But returning affected his immediate training and prep for the draft. He had a lot to lose by playing on a bad wheel and it did impact his draft standing. Only recently have NBA teams fully understood just how limited he was and started to recalculate Williams’ place in the draft’s pecking order.

“I don’t even know if it was 50%,” Williams said of his ankle health in late March. “I couldn’t jump off it, single leg, I couldn’t jump off two. I couldn’t really sprint. Most I could do was a fast jog. It kind of hurt to push off it. I really couldn’t do a lot of movement, as far as my ankle. Made it work, somehow. I don’t know how I did.”

Four months removed from ripping up his right ankle, Williams’ draft night outlook remains a moving target. His dedication to the game and as a teammate will work in his favor. Still, those in his circle believe playing on the ankle set back his recovery timeline in the most crucial evaluation period of his life. It didn’t have to be this way.

“He should not have been playing,” Nicole said. “How he was playing before the mask and before the ankle injury — I can’t believe they let him play. At P3 they saw how detrimental a decision that was.”


Cody Williams saunters into a modest Santa Barbara rec gym at 8:30 a.m. on a warm late-May Tuesday. It’s here, at the Page Youth Center, where Williams has put up (and been tracked on) more than 26,200 shots (making approximately 16,500) since he arrived in April to spend the bulk of his pre-draft training in Santa Barbara.

On this day he crosses 14,000 makes in the past six weeks, nearly 5,000 of those buckets being 3-pointers. He runs a gamut of high-intensity shooting workouts, putting his body through a wringer of exercises with a training team from WME Sports that’s led by Packie Turner, a veteran performance coach. He guides Williams through demanding full-court dribbling drills, some of them with specialized 3-pound basketballs to hone Cody’s handle.

They cycle through routines that rotate between at-the-rim attacks, tight mid-range pull-ups and deep contested shots. It’s been less than two weeks since Williams got cleared for full speed on his recovering ankle. (When Williams’ time in Santa Barbara is up, he’ll have logged 60 grueling workout hours over 40 days in two months’ time.)

After a 70-minute sweat, there’s much more work to be done. Williams makes the 10-minute drive to P3, a specialty gym unassumingly tucked away on a side street that sits less than 400 yards from the Pacific Ocean, adjacent to Santa Barbara’s West Beach. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d walk right past it. This humble spot has altered the lives of hundreds of millionaire athletes over the past 15 years. It’s also played a major role in how executives evaluate players. 

P3, which stands for Peak Performance Project and was established in 2006, has built up a sterling reputation in the past decade for its kinetics and kinematics data. In addition to projecting out nuanced athletic skill sets, P3’s computer algorithms and evaluations purport to help project injury prevention by identifying the weaknesses in a player’s body long before those weaknesses lead to serious injuries. 

It sounds high-tech — and it is — but the gym is not adorned in glamor or staged for Instagram pics. The cozy space feels semi-dark, there’s a no-frills bathroom/shower next to one of the training areas near the front, and most of the weight equipment and benches look at least 15 years old. Across the room, a few employees dutifully help athletes grunt through their sets. 

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Cody Williams, now nearly 100% healthy, spent the past two-plus months training in Santa Barbara. Joey Caione

The gym also serves as a physical rehab center, which is part of the reason why Williams is here. Today, he rotates through a half-dozen exercises to improve his core strength, shoulders, upper body mass, arm reflexes and angular flexibility. He goes from hurling a medicine ball against a metal slab bolted to the ceiling, to working his glutes, hamstrings and arms with what’s called “an elevated plate drop” that enhances Cody’s ability to stabilize external forces.

It looks miserable. 

He loves it.

“Being able to see where my body’s at and what I need to get stronger has really been one of the main focuses — and I can see my body transforming,” he puffs between sets.

A lot of the work that’s been done in this gym in recent weeks has been to restore full function to Cody’s right ankle, to make sure nothing is holding him back as he revs for the massive NBA leap. On May 28, it’s determined that his ankle recovery is at approximately 90%. 

“He doesn’t feel limited by it at all,” P3 general manager Adam Hewitt told CBS Sports. “Teams are going to see a better athlete than what they saw at the end of the season.” 

Hewitt’s team pulls up Cody’s profile on their screens and explains how a lot of his “underpinning” data resembles (you guessed it) Jalen’s. That’s an extremely encouraging sign. Jalen’s pre-draft results were a major factor that allowed him to vault from potential NBA pick all the way to being selected No. 12 by the OKC Thunder.

“Our models really love how he moves,” Hewitt says of Cody, who measured 6-foot-6 1/2 with a 7-1 wingspan at the combine. One of his biggest knocks: He’s the skinniest player in this draft, coming in at 184 pounds. Williams has been tested with P3’s state-of-the-art 3D Motion Capture and Force Plate data, which fills out an athlete’s strength and agility profile through “biomechanics and machine learning.”

What’s particularly promising is how well Cody has tested in comparison to Jalen, despite the ankle issue and going through this as a 19-year-old; Jalen’s results came when he was fully healthy and 21. Cody’s movement, use of force and athleticism is nearly identical to big bro. Hewitt said Cody’s lateral testing put him in the 92nd percentile of all current NBA athletes they’ve examined (more than 66% of players currently in the league). His vertical is 89th percentile. 

“Not a high flier but the tools are there to be a really good all around athlete,” Hewitt said. “He has tools to be a high-level defender, and at his size, he should be a handful.”

Imagine if he tested at 100%.


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Courtesy of Nicole Williams | CBS Sports illustration

Among the many uncertainties in an underwhelming, hard-to-project 2024 draft class, one looming question that’s hovered over the build-up to Wednesday night: Who’s going to pass on a Williams brother again? 

Jalen moving from fringe prospect to the 12th pick in a few months’ time was one of 2022’s feel-good stories. In retrospect, the Santa Clara alum was still taken too late. Two years in, Jalen (19.1 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.0 rpg) objectively ranks as one of the five best players from that draft. Five teams in the top 11 in 2022 that passed on Jalen are back in the top 11 this year: Detroit, Houston, Portland, San Antonio and Washington. Will all of them opt out on Cody too? He’s worked out for nine of the teams holding a top-10 pick.

“Just from a scouting perspective, just watch the shit,” Jalen flatly says of Cody’s chances to adapt as he did. “Just watch what he’s doing. Just watch the game, watch the reads he makes. Basketball is a collective thing where we get caught up in social media, where we want to see highlight plays, dunks … and we overlook playing the right way, being a high-IQ player. I have a chip on my shoulder as far as that goes. He does as well.” 

Jalen pointed out Boston’s recent NBA championship and the way Jayson Tatum put his teammates’ needs above his own and how he wanted to win playing the right way. 

“People see that with me, and I think it would be pretty weird to pass up on that,” Jalen said. “All his combine numbers are better than me. He’s taller, has a good frame, will constantly put on weight as he gets older. He’s someone who plays the right way and that gets lost now. … It would be pretty dumb to overlook him.”

If those same franchises (and new ones) pass, it will be in some part because of his up-and-down year in Boulder. The whole way, Nicole kept reminding her youngest of a simple truth. For as easy as it could be to fall into the mindset of following a big brother’s path to high-profile success, she told Cody: “I don’t need you to be like Jalen, I don’t need Jalen to be like you.” 

“It just so happens when they started going on the same path, just remember, you are you,” Nicole said. “Jalen’s path was his path and that was the right timing for Jalen. This is your path and this is the path I need you to be on.”

For as much as they can be packaged similarly, the brothers are motivated in different ways. Jalen seeks people who dismiss his objectives. He craves doubters. Cody knows who he is and is confident without giving thought to a critic. Come at him and he’ll filter you out without conscience.

“It’s amazing to Ron and I how he managed to do that,” Nicole said. “It impresses the hell out of me. He’s walking his own path in his own shoes. He’s not walking in Jalen’s shoes, he’s not walking Jalen’s path. It’s his.”

It came from the home they grew up in. A family of full accountability.

“They could have fun, laugh, be open and honest, but when it comes down to a respect level, there’s a line you don’t cross. And our boys wouldn’t even teeter near the line,” Nicole said. “We’re not that white-glove military family, but it’s the basic things, that maybe society’s losing track of, I need them to have a grip on.” 

Raising their children that way led to genuine dedication to studying and schoolwork. That paid off earlier this spring, when Cody impressed many teams behind closed doors at the combine with his high IQ in video sessions and in interview settings. He could watch tape, verbalize what he saw and explain the parts that should happen next in front of NBA minds 30-plus years older than him who he’d never met before. Being a good student led to him believing in the analytics of the game and, to hear him explain it: “How technical everything is, how everything they do is for a purpose.” 

Cody ranks Kobe Bryant as his all-time favorite player, with Jalen right alongside. One current player whose game he loves: two-time champ Jrue Holiday. He also models his styles after Kevin Durant, Lu Dort, Brandon Ingram and Jaden McDaniels. 

“I feel like just having a good feel for the game and making the small, simple, right plays is a big thing,” he said.

He’s on the precipice of a rarity, which is a fitting word. It’s the one he used to describe his closest bond.

“The best word to describe our relationship is rare,” Cody said of Jalen. “I’d definitely say a lot of siblings don’t have a relationship we have, not as close as we are. It’s really rare to find an older brother that wants their younger brother to be better than him. He really wants me to become the best basketball player ever and he does everything he can to help me.”

Now at nearly 100% full health for the first time since 2023, Cody Williams can arrive as scheduled, is truly ready for his biggest moment yet and sprinting toward the greatest leap of his life.

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