Frosh Williams Still Learning How to Play
KANSAS CITY - You look at Devin Williams and you see those huge, chiseled shoulders and that massive physique and visions of all those terrific bigs Bob Huggins has produced through the years begin dancing in your head.
You think of Corie Blount and Erik Martin and Danny Fortson and Kenyon Martin during his days in Cincinnati. You think of Bill Walker during his year at Kansas State, and then you think of Joe Alexander and Kevin Jones here at West Virginia, just to name a few.
You see what Danny Fortson did his first season playing for Huggins at Cincinnati in 1995 - 15.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and a 53.5 percent field goal percentage – you see what Keynon Martin did as the national player of the year in 2000 - 18.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 blocks – and you see what Kevin Jones did during his senior year at WVU in 2012 when he should have been the Big East player of the year – 19.9 points and 10.9 rebounds – and then you begin to wonder: is Devin Williams the next one?
There have been signs, sometimes tantalizing ones.
After scoring 13 points in his first two games against Mount St. Mary’s and Virginia Tech, Williams erupted for 18 points and 10 rebounds in a home win against Duquesne to begin a stretch of nine double-figure scoring games over his next 14 to boost his season average to 10.1 points per game.
Then he ran right smack into a wall at Texas. He ran into another one at Kansas State, and more walls came against Kansas, Iowa State and then Texas once again.
It was frustrating at times watching Williams trying to operate around the basket, getting his shots swatted away time and again by more experienced players.
Why can’t he just use his big frame and muscle the ball into the basket? Why does he struggle so much through contact against much smaller players? Why is it so difficult for him whenever his back is to the basket? … That’s what most of us were thinking when Williams was struggling. Sure, he’s just a freshman but look at him, all 6-feet-9, 260-pounds of him!
Not that simple, says Huggins.
“Devin has never been a low post player,” the coach pointed out. “He wasn’t a low post player in high school, but he’s getting better.”
There are things Williams can do right now that are actually better than some of Huggs’ best bigs were able to do at similar points in their careers, so in that respect he’s a leg up on them.
“He’s got good ball skills,” said Huggins. “I don’t know if they are better than Kenyon’s at the end, but he’s got better than Danny had and better than K.J. has. He can bounce it, plus, he probably shoots it from midrange probably a little more consistently.”
Yet why a kid that size was asked to play facing the basket his entire high school career is beyond my understanding, but that’s where Devin Williams was when Huggins first got his hands on him.
I hear it all of the time from former Mountaineer players now in the coaching profession – the kids today don’t want to get out on the blacktop and play against the older guys anymore. They want to be inside playing in the air conditioning with the music on.
There are many secrets to be learned out on that hot blacktop. It is where you learn how to figure things out when guys twice as old and half as good are guarding you all the way to the water fountain. You learn that it might not be a good idea turning a certain way, or holding the ball a certain way, or why the same guys are always coming up with the basketball – and staying on the court when your team loses.
I recall John Beilein once not being all that enthralled with the wildly athletic Joe Alexander whenever he watched him play scrimmage games at Hargrave Academy because Joe’s teams never won. It took assistant coach Jeff Neubauer to do some heavy persuading to convince Beilein to give Alexander a scholarship at WVU, and then it took Bob Huggins a lot of time and patience to turn Alexander into a good player.
That is how ill prepared many of these young players are when they get to college, and in many cases, go on to the pros (reference Jerry West’s thoughts on this year’s NBA class)
Even at this point in the season, the first thing Williams still wants to do before the start of practice is hang out with his buddies at the 3-point line and jack 3s. That makes a lot of sense considering he hasn’t attempted a single one in a game this year.
Why not get near the basket and work on his drop step or develop a left hand? Why not learn more about how to utilize that great body of his and understand the angles and spacing that make good players really good players like Kansas State’s Thomas Gibson.
But fortunately for Williams, he’s got Huggins and a bunch of really good assistant coaches around here to help. Every practice they work with him in the post: how to shield defenders with his body and use the basket to his advantage. They put guys on him and force him to score through contact. That’s where he is going to thrive – not standing outside launching 3s with his buddies.
Now, heading into this week’s Big 12 tournament, we are beginning to see a crack of light in Williams’ game. He’s beginning to score close to the basket and put that impressive body of his to good use. He’s working on a streak of three straight double-double games, including an eye opening 22-point, 13-rebound performance in West Virginia’s six-point victory over Kansas last Saturday at the Coliseum.
“Williams was by far the best big man in the game,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose Jayhawk team has more McDonald’s All-Americans than McDonald’s has hamburgers.
The way Williams played last Saturday against Kansas was the way guys such as Blount, Martin, Fortson, Martin and Jones used to play on a nightly basis for Huggins. And that’s a big reason why Huggins’ teams always won more than 75 percent of their games.
If West Virginia is going to be successful against Texas here on Thursday night and beyond, big Devin Williams is going to have to continue putting that impressive body of his to good use.
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