fbpx Brandon Williams | Phillips Exeter Academy

Brandon Williams

Year of Graduation: 
1992
Brandon Williams '92

"I had often heard that NBA stands for Nothing But Attorneys, and I was fascinated."

Brandon Williams calls himself the NBA’s version of Frankenstein.

“Over the last 21 years I developed through executive mentors, ‘Taking a piece of this, adding a piece of that,’” Williams ’92 says of his myriad work experiences. “Without a blueprint when I started, I may have just tripped into being the front-office type.”

Maybe so, but each of the work pieces Williams acquired along the way helped shape his approach and helped lead him to his latest job as the assistant general manager for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.

Williams spent a decade bouncing around leagues and nations as a player after he graduated from Davidson College in 1996. He had “cups of coffee” in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks. He played in the Continental Basketball Association and the National Basketball Development League for La Crosse, Huntsville, Sioux Falls and Rockford, and played abroad for teams in Greece, France, Germany and Israel. Seeing the game at so many levels and in so many cultures honed his eye as a talent evaluator.

Williams worked in the NBA’s league offices from 2005 to 2013, starting in its Social Responsibility and Players Program department and climbing to become associate vice president of basketball operations. Among his many achievements, Williams helped tutor rookies on the pitfalls of NBA life, helped create the league’s wide-ranging “Respect for the Game” policy that imposed a dress code and a code of conduct, and was instrumental in the creation of the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey.

During those eight years he also got married, had a second child, Remington, now 5 (Bailey, 13, is the other), and earned a law degree from Rutgers in 2012 to elevate his profile and deepen his understanding of the league’s decision-making process and rules structure.

“When referring to the power structure, I had often heard around the business that NBA stands for Nothing But Attorneys, and I was fascinated,” Williams says.

In 2013 he took a position with the Philadelphia 76ers, working under general manager Sam Hinkie, that included running the Delaware 87ers, the team’s development league club. When the Sixers hired USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations, Colangelo and his son, Bryan (now Philadelphia’s GM), began a major overhaul of the front office. Williams was one of the few employees the Colangelos retained. Under Jerry Colangelo, one of the game’s most respected minds, Williams says his knowledge grew exponentially.

“This game is full of A-types,” Williams says. “It’s the very nature of what we do. In that environment where everybody wants to be on top, be the best, be the biggest, I learned a lot just listening to Jerry. It wasn’t always a tutorial on ‘Here’s how you negotiate with a tough agent.’ Sometimes, it was a story about how he’d negotiated with a frustrated agent and player to find a reasonable compromise. He has so much information. He’s such an impressive man.”

That opinion cut both ways.

“In my time with him, I would say I was impressed,” says Jerry Colangelo, who was USA Basketball chairman from 2009 to 2016 and owned the Phoenix Suns from 1987 to 2004. “He’s a very articulate, knowledgeable guy who I thought had a pretty good résumé as a player, and of course his education and work experience prepared him for more and more responsibility. He was definitely an individual you could pinpoint and say, ‘He has a real upside to his game.’”

At Exeter, there were times when Williams wondered if he belonged in the game at all. He grew up a straight-A student and a star basketball player in Collinston, Louisiana (population 264), where his mother was a teacher and principal. Once he left, though, he understood how limiting his upbringing had been.

“It was a depressing environment and still very closed-minded,” Williams says. “David Duke was running for governor and we effectively had separate proms in ’92.”

When Louisiana dropped to last in the national education rankings and his parish ranked second to last in the state, his mom decided Brandon had to get out. His uncle had graduated from Exeter in 1976. Without ever having seen the Academy, Williams enrolled upon his acceptance, hopped on a bus, and made what he remembers as a 48-hour drive with multiple stops between the Deep South and the northern reaches of New England.

“I struggled early,” he says. “It was culture shock, climate shock, shock at working at that pace, and I was not nearly as good at basketball as I thought I was.”

Williams thought about leaving during his first semester, but with the help of friends and mentors, he grew into his new environment. He learned to manage the Academy’s rigorous academics. Following an on-campus screening of Spike Lee’s 1989 movie Do the Right Thing, he learned to openly discuss issues of race that he had never dared to discuss with anyone but his mother. He made white friends for the first time in his life. He earned a starting role on the basketball team. He found a sense of belonging.

That combination of personal drive and listening to others has continued to serve him in his professional career. “With all of these things I’ve done with my education or playing or player development, teaching rookies to transition to the NBA, business, marketing, international camps and clinics — some of it was my own doing, some of it was through encouragement, some of it was ideas people had that would be important for my growth,” Williams says. “I’ve had so many mentors, so when people say it was easy becoming a basketball executive because I played, I’ll tell you that at this stage, by the time I got to management, playing was just a factor. You couldn’t separate all these experiences and influences and say one was more important. They were all important.”

When Scott Perry left the Kings organization to accept his dream job as general manager of the New York Knicks, Kings GM Vlade Divac went looking for someone with a broad range of experiences to become his new assistant. Williams was an ideal candidate.

“His background, finishing law school and being a player and having experience with the league and working with the G-league, was what we were looking for,” Divac said. “He knows basketball, he has a lot of contacts around the league and he’s a very bright person, very educated. He fits our team very well.”

Williams isn’t shy about his next ambition. He wants to be one of the NBA’s 30 general managers and he knows this position sharpens him for that role. He will drive trades with teams and contract negotiations with players’ agents. He will grow as a leader, through the day-to-day management of staff and the operations of an NBA team.

“It’s hard to excel at this job without being comprehensive in skill set and approach,” he says.

With all that Williams already brings to the table, one of the game’s most accomplished men believes he is on a fast track to his ultimate goal.

“If he stays on course and continues to grow, he’ll have a great shot at being a GM,” Jerry Colangelo says. “He’s cordial, he’s hard-working, he’s knowledgeable, he understands the game — it’s all positives with Brandon.”  

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.