ACES HISTORY: Natalie Williams

Sit down, my friends, and listen to the story of 6-2 power forward Natalie Williams. In her first year in the WNBA, she averaged 18.0 points and 9.2 rebounds, while connecting on 51.9 percent of her shots from the field.

She was not the overall number one pick that year (or the second pick). She was not named WNBA Rookie of the Year. She did not win WNBA Newcomer of the Year.

How is this possible you ask?

Simple.

The 1999 WNBA Draft was the most talented draft in the history of, not just women’s basketball, but all of professional sports.

Hyperbole?

Not really.

While typical drafts draw from the top collegiate and international players in the world, the 1999 WNBA Draft had an additional talent source—the rival American Basketball League.

The ABL launched just prior to the WNBA in 1996, and played during the more traditional winter season. The leagues competed for players during those first two years, and some observers opined that the ABL actually had more talent.

The ABL completed two full seasons before abruptly declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy and suspending operations on December 22, 1998, one third of the way through the league’s third campaign.

Every player, save two, on the ABL’s eight teams became eligible for the 1999 WNBA Draft held on April 6. The two that weren’t—Katie Smith and Shannon “Pee Wee” Johnson—were allocated to the expansion Minnesota Lynx and Orlando Miracle respectively.

That still left the proverbial boatload of talent from which teams could choose in the draft. So much talent, that only one collegian was taken in the first 17 picks. That player was Chamique Holdsclaw, whom the Washington Mystics selected with the first overall pick in the draft.

The remaining 11 picks in the first round were all former ABL players, including the Utah Starzz pick at number three, Natalie Williams. Williams was a Utah native having attended Taylorsville High School just south of Sale Lake City. She was an All-American in volleyball and basketball at UCLA, who averaged 20.4 points per game while also leading the Bruins to national volleyball championships in 1990 and 1991.

Williams went on to play two-plus seasons for the Portland Power of the ABL, where she was a two-time all-league performer and the 1998 ABL Most Valuable Player.

As a rookie in the WNBA, Williams averaged 18.0 points and 9.2 rebounds while making 51.9 percent of her field goal attempts. Her All-WNBA First Team performance that season was a big reason why the Starzz improved from eight wins in 1998 to 15 in 1999.

During her second season in Utah, Williams upped her averages to 18.7 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. She was again named to the All-WNBA First Team, and the Starzz posted their first winning season as a franchise with an 18-14 mark.

Williams just missed out on another season-long double-double in 2001, recording averages of 14.2 points and 9.9 rebounds, en route to her third straight All-WNBA First Team nod. The Starzz continued their improvement, going 19-13, and finishing in third place in the Western Conference to earn their first WNBA postseason berth. Utah fell to Sacramento in the conference semifinals.

The Starzz increased their win total the following season yet again, posting a 20-12 mark, and advancing to the Western Conference Finals, thanks in part to averages of 11.3 points and 8.2 rebounds from Williams.

The 2002 season would be the Starzz’ last in Utah, and Williams’ last with the franchise. On December 5, 2002, Spurs Sports & Entertainment purchased the team, relocating it to San Antonio, and changing the name to the Silver Stars.

Five months later, Williams was traded to the Indiana Fever in a multi-player deal. She played three years with the Fever, retiring after the 2005 season.

Williams concluded her seven-year WNBA career with averages of 13.1 points and 8.3 rebounds.

Since retiring, Williams continues to be a mother to her four children, and has remained close to the game coaching at the high school level and establishing the Natalie Williams Basketball Academy in Draper, Utah. She was also inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.