Derrick Williams tried being a jerk once, and it didn't work out so well.

At just 9 years old, Williams dropped 40 points during a youth league game. Through a variety of moves on the floor, body language and words, he let everyone in the gym know what was going on.

His mother, Rhoma Moore, was not impressed.

"After the game, she got real mad and said, 'That's not the person you are. You shouldn't be out there showboating,' " Williams said. "She said, 'You know you can score 40 points. You know what you can do. You don't have to showboat.' "

Moore said she didn't remember that specific game but it could be because she delivered the message repeatedly. Just like her parents repeated it to her.

"I've always taught my kids to be proud of what they did but you just do your thing and people will see you," Moore said. "You don't need to show off, whether it's on the floor or in the classroom.

"He's always been a humble kid. I think that's a family trait. My parents always taught me to be proud of what you have, though we didn't have much."

To this day, even after Williams rose from a lightly recruited junior at La Mirada High School to a rising senior to the Pac-10 freshman of the year to a possible NBA draft candidate next summer, Williams has shown none of the behavior from that 9-year-old's outburst.

At age 19, Williams now is easygoing and cordial off the court, and Arizona coach Sean Miller says he's the rare combination of a team's best player who also is the most unselfish player.

When asked how Williams became this way, Miller did not hesitate.

"His mom," Miller said. "She's a really special person. You can tell that Derrick and her have a special relationship and at the same time she really holds him accountable. It's that combination that makes Derrick the great kid that he is."

There's only one problem, and it's being improved daily during the Wildcats' preseason, which contained a private scrimmage against Utah on Saturday and will continue with and public exhibition next Sunday against Augustana.

The laid-back persona, at least during Williams' freshman year, carried onto the court a bit too often for Miller's liking. And Miller didn't just feel that way; he had quantitative proof.

At the end of every week, Miller and his staff tally up points given and taken away during practices, things such as rebounds, steals, charges, fouls given and fouls received. Then he awards a blue-and-gold jersey for that player to wear during the following week.

Despite leading the Wildcats in points (15.7) and rebounds (7.1), and winning the points derby for many games, Williams never once won it from a week of practice last year.

He was too laid-back, maybe.

But this season, over the first two full weeks of practice, Williams won the jersey once and finished second to Solomon Hill another week.

"It says a lot," Miller said. "Sometimes growth isn't just seen in the games. It's seen daily when no one's around. Derrick's work ethic is better, he understands the big picture more, he's a better competitor and overall better player. And because of that he'll be improved over where he was a year ago."

Miller is so confident in Williams' upcoming season that, while the star player and coach from every Pac-10 team sat on the stage at the conference's media day Thursday, Miller said, "I don't know if any coach feels better about the player sitting next to him than I do."

And, unlike a year ago, Miller is confident enough in Williams that he does not have to worry about whether sophomore Kyryl Natyazhko can handle center. If Miller gets only part-time or matchup help from Natyazhko and fellow big man Alex Jacobson, no problem.

Williams will be a forward, executing whatever center duties become necessary.

"That's the plan," Miller said. "I think if you really look around college basketball, there are a lot of teams who play like that."

The Pac-10, in particular, does not have many true centers and, Williams said, Miller has a system that does not require a full-time back-to-the basket post player.

"It's not built for a true five (center), somebody just sitting in the paint," Williams said. "It's more like a four than a five. It's good for my game."

For Williams, the real challenges may be elsewhere: Can he consistently play and practice at a high level, and can he deal with the target on his back that comes from being the Pac-10 freshman of the year and now a fringe preseason All-America candidate?

And can he progress toward a possible NBA career by proving he can hit a jump shot but doing so within UA's system?

"Part of the question for Derrick isn't to try to be somebody he isn't," Miller said. "Derrick can shoot the three but I don't think he needs to shoot four or five threes a game and act as if he has to do something different than he did a year ago. What he did a year ago worked out pretty well.

"But for him, it's being able to shoot the ball from the perimeter and just being ready for every game and every situation. There's no question he can be a better rebounder and I think the way he practices will prepare him to do all those things. He's practicing way better than he was a year ago and he is able to go longer harder and be more productive from start to finish."

Here's another sign Miller is confident in Williams: He's recruited two more players for 2011-12 than he has room for if everyone returns, and it's no secret Williams may not return. projects Williams going No. 20 in June's NBA Draft, while Draft Express has him at No. 23 in 2012, saying he "still has quite a bit more to prove."

Whether he gets there next season or later, Williams said that's not his focus now. He said Miller has reminded him that the vast majority of NBA draftees last year came from teams with strong winning percentages.

Arizona was 16-15 in Williams' first year.

"I don't like to say, 'Oh yeah, this year I'm going to the NBA,' " Williams said. "I'm just trying to get Arizona back to where it was, play well in the Pac-10 tournament, get to the (NCAA) tournament and all the individual stuff will come. If we have a good year this year it will benefit everybody else. Our team has to win first."

Up next

• What: Augustana College at Arizona (exhibition)

• When: Next Sunday, 4 p.m.

• Webcast: