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Why Lou Williams embraced NBA life as bench player

‘If you want to be a part of a team and a team player … you accept the role.’

LOS ANGELES — Lou Williams scored two points off the bench in his first NBA game on Nov. 2, 2005. And he believes he wouldn’t still be in the league if not for accepting his role as a reserve.

“I probably would have been done, to be honest with you, if I didn’t accept a reserve role,” Williams told The Undefeated. “I would have been done because I would have been chasing something for someone else that probably wasn’t for me. I had to embrace what was for me and my career and go get it.”

The Los Angeles Clippers guard passed former NBA sharpshooter Dell Curry to become the NBA’s all-time leader in bench scoring during a 140-115 win over the Boston Celtics on Monday night. Williams scored 34 points and now has 1,154 career bench points entering Tuesday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers. (Starters and reserves were not accounted for in NBA box scores until the 1970-71 season.)

Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers is the NBA’s all-time leader in bench scoring.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Clippers showed their respect by displaying the record on the JumboTron to appreciative fans.

“Lou’s entire career, he’s kind of accepted that role,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s just a terrific player and a phenomenal leader.”

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said, “Most guys like Lou Williams don’t come off the bench, and that makes me appreciate him even more.”

Williams said he planned to celebrate his accomplishment after the game with his mother and others close to him. When asked whether he remembered the first time he came off the bench in the NBA, Williams said, “No, because it probably wasn’t pleasurable, so it wasn’t something I was trying to remember.”

The 6-foot-1, 175-pound guard spent his first four seasons coming off the bench after being selected 45th overall in the second round of the 2005 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. He got his first opportunity to start on Oct. 28, 2009, and scored 18 points in 31 minutes.

Williams was averaging 17.4 points and 5.1 assists as a starter for the Sixers during the 2009-10 season before being sidelined with a broken jaw he suffered on Nov. 24, 2009. The Sixers replaced Williams in the starting lineup by re-signing Allen Iverson, their former superstar. While Williams ended up starting a career-high 38 times that season, the arrival of Iverson was the beginning of the end of his days as a starter.

Williams credits Iverson for starting him on his path to becoming a star reserve.

“[Iverson] was the reason I ended up coming off the bench,” Williams said. “When he came back to Philly, I was in a really good run and I ended up getting hurt when he came in. He got the starting spot. That kind of solidified me as a role player. But for him, he’s a Hall of Fame guy, an MVP-caliber guy. I wouldn’t expect him to accept a bench role like that.”

Coming off the bench after having success as a starter was not easy for Williams. His family and friends thought he deserved more. It wasn’t glamorous. But Williams changed his mentality when he began to pay attention to the success of Jamal Crawford, who is a three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year and now has the third-most bench points ever. Williams also realized he was getting more notoriety as a scorer and more satisfaction coming off the bench.

Lou Williams (center) of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots the ball during a game against the Boston Celtics on March 11 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

“If you want to be a part of a team and a team player and you really mean it, you accept the role,” Williams said. “You always hear these clichés that ‘I will do whatever to help the team win.’ I was put in that position. I had to walk it like I talked it. I had to mean it. That was the part that kind of stuck with me. I always wanted to be remembered as a team guy and not a selfish person. …

“That is something that you have to go through with yourself. You start talking to your family and ain’t no one gonna tell you that you should embrace a bench role. They’re going to tell you, ‘You’re supposed to be a starter and you’re supposed to be a star.’ That was some adversity I had to go through early on in my career. I had to embrace it.”

Williams didn’t make a start in three of the next five seasons with Philadelphia, the Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors. He started 35 games for the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2015-16 season and 19 games for the Clippers last season. But, overall, Williams has started only 109 of his 922 regular-season games during his 14-year career.

Coming off the bench has been rewarding for Williams. He won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award in 2015 and 2018, finishes games and has been given opportunities to take game-winning shots. And coming off the bench has certainly been lucrative for Williams, who has earned $58 million during his career. He also has had a shoe deal with the Chinese brand Peak since 2015.

“I started having some big games, started closing games and making big shots,” Williams said. “I realized that you don’t have to start to have a big impact. It got to the point where teams didn’t want to see me coming in.”

Williams is expected to return home to South Gwinnett, Georgia, for his annual youth basketball camp this summer. And when the 32-year-old talks to his campers again, expect a message about unselfishness, being humble and hard work that can lead to longtime success in the role that is truly best for you.

“Always strive to be the best, always strive to be an All-Star, always strive to be a star player and everything,” Williams said. “But if it doesn’t work out, embrace whatever comes at you and be the best at that.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.