Can Loyola’s Lucas Williamson make it to the NBA? There’s only one way to find out

“I’m chasing my dream,” he said before a workout with the Grizzlies.

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Lucas Williams, shown here during the 2021 NCAA Tournament, is taking his shot at the NBA.

Lucas Williams, shown here during the 2021 NCAA Tournament, is taking his shot at the NBA.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Lucas Williamson has played some of the most important basketball of his life during these NBA playoffs. In Boston. In Milwaukee. In Atlanta. In Memphis.

But while the best teams on the planet are vying for a championship, arguably the best player of a golden era at Loyola is trying to fight his way into the league through its basement door.

“I’m chasing a dream right now,” he said.

Last week, he worked out for the Celtics and Bucks, who just so happened to be locking horns in a terrific Eastern Conference semifinal series. On Monday, he worked out for the Hawks. On Tuesday, it was the Grizzlies.

The draft is June 23, and the player Ramblers coach Drew Valentine refers to as “the standard” can’t count on his name being called. But a guy doesn’t decorate his résumé with two state championships at Young, three conference tournament titles at Loyola, two Sweet 16s and a Final Four by waiting around to find stuff out.

“If I get drafted, cool,” he said, “and if I don’t get drafted, that’s also cool. We’re just focused on right team, right fit. Just like Loyola was — right team, right fit.”

The right qualities can help an undrafted free agent find that fit, and Williamson, a 6-4 guard, has more of them than most. His defense alone — as Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu found out in the 2021 NCAA Tournament — should give him a chance. The person he is should, too, and perhaps this is his greatest gift. Talk to him for five minutes and you’ll walk away muttering, “What am I doing with my life?” Talk to him for 15 and you’ll think “President Williamson” doesn’t have such a bad ring to it.

Last May 10, Williamson gave a virtual graduation speech and discussed politics, leadership, honesty, integrity, accountability and mental health before he ever uttered the word “basketball.” A year later to the day, he was on his own in Memphis for an evening job interview of sorts with the Grizzlies. He’ll work out for the Jazz and Kings later this month.

“It doesn’t matter if you [don’t] have a 40-inch vertical,” he said. “Does it help? Yeah, it can for some people. But a lot of other skills are also important — ball-handling, shooting, basketball IQ — and what type of person are you? What type of teammate are you? All those things matter when it comes to winning championships.”

Eleven days after Loyola lost to Michigan in the 2018 Final Four, former Rambler Milton Doyle — whose college career ended in 2017 — played a game with the Nets. It was his 10th NBA game and the last one for a Rambler. Doyle now plays in Turkey. More recent standouts are playing all over Europe: Donte Ingram in the Netherlands, Ben Richardson in Slovakia, Marques Townes in France, Cameron Krutwig in Belgium.

The NBA is a tough nut to crack, but life takes you places regardless. In Milwaukee, Williamson was able to share a hug with Carson Shanks, a teammate on the Final Four squad who has landed a job with the Bucks as a player development and video assistant. Small world, isn’t it?

It’s a pretty big world, too, as a 23-year-old traveling alone is certain to feel at times. At Loyola, Williamson’s itineraries were set for him. Now? Good luck out there, kid.

“In college,” he said, “we’re going to land, go to the arena, put up shots, go to dinner, go to the hotel and watch film — everything is so structured. But I get off the plane now and it’s like, hey, how am I going to get to the hotel? I’m going to fly back into Chicago on Wednesday, and how am I going to get home?”

And what the heck is he supposed to eat? The Hawks gave him $75 — a gastronome could do some real damage with that — but Williamson ended up at Chipotle. The Grizzlies told him to charge dinner to his room, so, after arriving Monday night, he picked up a to-go order from the hotel bar, went upstairs and ate while watching the Celtics nip the Bucks.

He watched the fourth quarter of that game while on the phone with a reporter back home — “my cocoon,” he calls Chicago — and ruminated on the NBA guards he admires. The Celtics’ Marcus Smart and the Bucks’ Jrue Holiday are two of them. Chicagoan Patrick Beverley of the Timberwolves, famous for his defense and peskiness, is another.

There’s also the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet, who went from then-Valley school Wichita State to undrafted in 2016 to first-time NBA All-Star in 2022. And then there’s some dude who not only wasn’t drafted but never even averaged double figures in scoring in four years of college ball. What’s his name again? Oh, yeah, Alex Caruso.

“All these challenges are just opportunities for growth,” Williamson said.

Two weeks from now, Williamson’s lease at his Rogers Park apartment will be up. He’ll move in with his dad in the South Loop. And then what? A self-described “realistic dreamer” will keep taking bites out of life.

“I know I’m going to have to go a back route [to the NBA], going to have to grind it out, work from square one, work from the ground up, just like I did at Whitney Young and just like I did at Loyola,” he said.

“Whatever that path looks like, it’s the path I’m willing to take. It might not be the most glamorous. It might not be the red carpet rolling out and getting paid millions of dollars through the process. But I’m confident in my ability to work a job one day — I don’t need basketball to, like, make a living — so why not do this? Why not go for it? Why not go for my dreams? Why not go for it all?”

It just might work.

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