Alan Williams had to rush out of Russia five months ago. He finally landed on his feet this week in The Land Down Under.
The former UC Santa Barbara basketball star is proving himself to be the truest of globetrotters. He will soon make his new home in a fourth continent, having signed a contract Friday to play for the South East Melbourne Phoenix of Australia’s National Basketball League.
“I just found it a good opportunity to further my career and touch an area of the globe that I haven’t been to yet,” he said during a news conference to announce his signing.
Williams, who set school records for both rebounds (1,125) and field goals (637) as a Gaucho from 2011 to 2015, spent parts of four seasons in the NBA with both his hometown Phoenix Suns and the Brooklyn Nets. He had used his powerful, 6-foot-8 frame to become UCSB’s second all-time leading scorer with 1,732 points.
But it became more difficult to stick in a league that was embracing more of a perimeter, three-point-shooting game. He returned to China, where he’d started his professional career after graduating from UCSB, but in 2019 signed with Russia’s Lokomotiv Kuban in Krasnodar in southern Russia. He liked the team and city so much that he stayed for three years.
“It was like home,” Williams said. “I would come home for a couple of months, and then I’d be there for 10 months. I spent more time there than I did back home over the last three years.
“I loved the people. The fans were great, and I really enjoyed playing for Lokomotiv Kuban. It was a good time for me.”
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February brought that time to an end. Williams does wish he had “a more interesting story to tell” about his hasty exit from the country 19 days later.
Further complicating the situation was the arrest of Brittney Griner, a women’s basketball star who had also been playing in Russia. Griner was detained at the Moscow airport for possessing hashish oil in her luggage, and was sentenced last week to more than nine years in prison.
Williams announced that he and Lokomotiv Kuban, which had been suspended from EuroCup competition with other Russian teams, agreed to terminate his contract on March 15.
“It all happened pretty fast,” he said. “It was a stall in play. All of a sudden, the invasion took place and then it was just week-by-week. It got more and more difficult to be out there as a foreigner.”
His credit cards no longer worked. His cell phone service became spotty.
“I didn’t feel unsafe in the city that I was in,” Williams insisted. “But at the same time, when the country that you’re playing in is involved in a conflict like that, you never know what’s going to happen.
“Rather than wait around and figure that out, I chose to exit the situation and get to a place where I felt comfortable back home.”
Australia became an attractive landing spot. Williams’ agent entered negotiations with such teams as the Perth Wildcats, which recently hired UCSB associate head coach John Rillie as its new head coach.
“I always heard that Australia was an amazing place to visit,” Williams said. “It’s a league that’s on the rise. I think you have seen it from the deals that guys tend to get after playing a season in the NBL.”
But he wound up signing with the Wildcats’ rival. South East Melbourne star Mitch Creek, his former teammate on Brooklyn’s G League affiliate in Long Island, helped talk him into it.
“He was adamant about getting me out here and joining the team,” Williams said. “He gave me all the positives the city of Melbourne brings and the great things the team are trying to do.”
Simon Mitchell, the team’s coach, had noticed Williams while scouting Creek during their Long Island days.
“I know Creeky loved playing next to him, and I think they have some unfinished business together,” he said. “He is a monster on the boards, has a natural feel for where the ball is going and protects that area with his frame.
“Offensively, his touch and basketball IQ have always stood out.”
His knowledge of world geography, meanwhile, continues to grow by leaps and bounds.
Two other former UCSB stars — June graduate Amadou Sow and Max Heidegger from the Class of 2020 — are both bound for Europe after having received little exposure during last month’s NBA Pro Summer League.
Amadou Sow, an All-Big West Conference forward for UCSB the last four years, has signed to play professional basketball in France’s top division. (UCSB Athletics photo)
Sow got extended minutes with the New Orleans Pelicans in only one of their five games — their summer finale against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He played well in that 21-minute stint, scoring 10 points while making 3-of-4 shots from both the field and the free-throw line. He sank his only three-point attempt, grabbed five rebounds and blocked two shots.
But Sow decided that his best opportunity was overseas. He recently signed a contract to play for Ada Blois, a team that was promoted this year to France’s top professional division (Betclic Elite).
“From first impressions, the potential of Amadou is obvious,” Ada Blois general manager Julien Monclar said in a club statement. “Of course he is a rookie, but he has been carrying his team for several seasons and has all the tools to play in Betclic Elite.
“He is very pleasant and a hard worker, his life course deserves respect, and his integration will be facilitated by his perfect mastery of French.”
Sow, a native of Mali and the master of three languages, is the only Gaucho to ever make the All-Big West Conference first or second teams during all four of his seasons at UCSB. The 6-9 honors student is tied for sixth with Michael Bryson on UCSB’s all-time scoring list with 1,620 points and is third in rebounds with 860.
Heidegger was signed to play in the NBA Pro Summer League with the Atlanta Hawks. An injury, however, prevented him from taking the court. He is now taking his leave to play in Turkey.
The 6-3 guard, whose 13.4-point career average ranks ninth in UCSB’s record books, signed last Monday with Yukatel Merkezefendi Belediye Basket.
Heidegger is coming off a big year overseas, having ranked fourth in Germany’s top division with an 18.3-point average for EWE Baskets Oldenburg. He also scored at a 15.8-point clip in the FIBA Champions League and was called up to play for Israel’s Senior National Team.
A Bittersweet Tweet
UCSB baseball coach Andrew Checketts figured that Austin Charles, one of his top recruits, had priced himself out of the market when his name wasn’t called until the 20th and final round of Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft.
MLB.com had projected the 6-foot-6 shortstop/pitcher at No. 109 but the Kansas City Royals didn’t nab him until pick No. 595.
Charles batted .483 and allowed a pitching earned run average of 1.36 last spring to lead Bakersfield’s Stockdale High School to a CIF-Central Section championship. He told a television reporter as recently as last week that he was planning to attend UCSB but was still awaiting a possible “attractive offer” from the Royals.
That offer came in last weekend at $429,500.
Some MLB scouts believed Charles has the tools to develop into a first-rounder. D1Baseball.com wrote that he “will immediately jump into the Top 10 discussion when looking ahead to the 2025 MLB Draft” after some college seasoning. This year’s signing bonus for the top 10 picks ranged from $8.19 million to $4 million.
Charles, however, opted to take the money that was already on the table.
“Ain’t too many cons when you playin’ with the pros,” he tweeted last Sunday, one day before the signing deadline.
Checketts had figured that four of his top recruits might get drafted last month. Just days before the draft, Scripps Ranch High pitcher Tyler Bremner signaled to MLB scouts during an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune that he might be willing to sign.
“This is a hard decision, and I’m still up in the air,” he said. “The chance to play pro ball is a big pull, but UCSB is a great school. That’s why it’s so tough.”
To Checketts’ great relief, Bremner went undrafted.
All six of last season’s drafted Gauchos signed with their MLB teams: infielder Jordan Sprinkle, fourth round, Chicago White Sox, for $452,900; outfielder Nick Vogt, seventh round, San Diego Padres, for $200,000; pitcher Cory Lewis, ninth round, Minnesota Twins, for $140,000; pitcher Ryan Harvey, 11th round, New York Yankees, for $210.00; outfielder Blake Klassen, 17th round, Washington Nationals, for $125,000; and infielder Bryce Willits, 18th round, White Sox, for $40,000.
Two other local players who were drafted in the 20th round are also headed for professional baseball. Dos Pueblos High graduate Isaac Coffey, a pitcher for Oral Roberts in Tulsa, Oklahoma, signed with the Boston Red Sox while San Marcos High grad Ian Churchill, a pitcher for the University of San Diego, reached agreement with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Santa Barbara High graduate Derek True, a 20th-round pick of the Oakland Athletics, declined to sign. That’s good news for Cal Poly, which will have both True and Bryce Warrecker, his former Santa Barbara High teammate, heading up its pitching staff.