Maryland forward Jordan Williams is a really, really good player.
That was the complete first draft of this Jordan Williams column a few days ago. Kinda skimpy, I know, but that was absolutely everything I knew about Williams at the time. My editor said he was looking for a bit more. I shrugged and told him I could add another really.
Think about it. Williams ranks first in the ACC in rebounding, first in field goal percentage and fourth in scoring. What do you know about him?
Maybe it’s that name. Jordan Williams. As you may have guessed, yes, he is named after Michael Jordan. He even had the name Jordan Michael Williams for a little while, until one of his father’s friends gave his son the same name on the same day Jordan was born and so the Michael got subbed out. Still, Jordan Williams? That sounds like identity camouflage in the ACC. The dude isn’t the most notable Williams on the Maryland bench. Heck, even his nickname, J-Will, has been previously owned by a more celebrated conference player, Duke’s Jason (you can call me Jay) Williams.
So, what else have I learned about Jordan Williams? Well, he comes from Connecticut and didn’t get a scholarship offer from UConn. Even though the Nutmeg State produces about as much prep basketball talent as Luxembourg. Even though his hometown is walking distance from Storrs. Even though his Uncle Murray played for the Huskies. In fact, other than Maryland, the only other major scholarship offer Jordan Williams received was from St. John’s, which at the time was like getting invited to the prom by your cousin Floyd.
Williams grew up idolizing the young Shaquille O’Neal but played more like the older version. He was sloooooow. Chubby. Basically could only dunk. The closest he got to being a McDonald’s All-American is when he typically used to eat three Big Macs for lunch.
Says Williams, “Even in my junior year of high school when I averaged about 28 points and 15 rebounds, people said, ‘Big deal. He’s 6’8” playing against kids who are 5’11”. Just wait until he starts playing guys his own size.’ There were always people pointing out the parts of my game that weren’t any good. Even to this day, I hear negative things said about me and that just puts a chip on my shoulder.”
During the national anthem before every game, Williams says a quiet prayer that is punctuated by the phrase, “Prove everybody wrong.”
Turns out the talent was always there. Williams just needed a push. Enter Gary Williams, who figured he could browbeat Jordan Williams into a future pro the way he once did with another discounted frontcourt recruit, Lonny Baxter. In Williams’s surprising freshman season at Maryland, when he admits that he didn’t necessarily expect to be more than “a good clapper on the bench,” he averaged 9.6 points per game and finished second in the ACC in rebounding. Then without the slightest suggestion from the Terps coaching staff, Williams shed 21 pounds in the off-season. This year his preseason goal was to produce a double-double in every game. He’s done it in all but two games so far and he’s still ticked off about those two.
His game is not flashy, not SportsCenter-friendly. It’s more Tim Duncan than Shaquille O’Neal. In fact, when I asked Williams’s teammates Sean Mosley and Cliff Tucker to describe what makes Williams special, both looked a bit bewildered as if it was a question that wasn’t supposed to be on the test.
It’s fitting somehow that the gentleman who writes Williams’s p.r. copy is Mr. Dull. When I asked Maryland basketball media contact Doug Dull about Williams, he told me, “Jordan’s the kind of kid you’d want to take home to mom,” which is great news for Jordan’s future in-laws, but it ain’t going to get him a gig with the Heatles.
After Williams put up a season-high 27 points and 13 rebounds against Boston College, Eagles coach Steve Donahue also struggled to define him. Said Donahue, “I think there’s very few kids in college basketball … he’s extremely … it’s hard to put your finger on ...”
Then it struck him. “Very few kids can consistently score with their back to the basket,” Donahue said. “Most of the time in college basketball if you make a guy shoot over you, you have a pretty good chance of him missing it. Williams does an unbelievable job of getting position and his ability to score consistently down there is a handful.”
Last Sunday Williams visited Duke and discovered that the Cameron Crazies had nothing planned for him. Zippo. Aren’t the league’s elite players supposed to get roasted there? They treated Williams like anybody else. You could say they insulted him by not insulting him.
Williams then notched a quiet 23 points and 13 rebounds despite being triple-teamed at times. Duke’s Mason Plumlee attempted to guard him and fouled out in 18 minutes. When Gary Williams was asked afterward about the Blue Devils’ defense on his sophomore center, he deadpanned, “Yeah, they did a good job. They kept him under 30.”
Meanwhile, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski barely mentioned Jordan Williams in the postgame, which can only be explained by the fact that Williams putting up 23 and 13 in Cameron isn’t all that newsworthy, which is pretty darn newsworthy. When I spoke to Krzyzewski the next day about Williams, he said, “I think he’s one of the best players in the country. I think he has the best hands of any big guy we’ve played against by far.”
When I asked Jordan Williams about putting up those numbers in Cameron he said, “I just hope people realize how hard it is to do well there. If that game doesn’t get me noticed, maybe I have to turn into Dwight Howard or something.”
On Wednesday night at Wake Forest, Williams shot just 2-for-13 and still grinded out 13 points and 15 rebounds. Ho hum. It was his 14th double-double of the season, which ranks second in the country.
I know we haven’t hit MLK Day just yet, but Williams is looking like the runaway ACC Player of the Year (non-Duke division). That said, while the rest of us may wonder how it’s possible for a 6’10”, 260-pound man to fly under the radar, Williams really doesn’t sweat the anonymity. He also leads the ACC in humility.
He is the kind of guy who calls a sportswriter “Sir”, talks to that writer for 15 minutes when he’s only got five to spare and then thanks the writer for taking the time to talk to him.
During our conversation when I told him that three days earlier I knew almost nothing about him, Williams just laughed. “It’s a great example that you didn’t really know who I am,” he said. “To me, that’s how it’s been throughout my whole career, people not knowing me or how I play or what I can do. I’ve always been overlooked and by now I’m used to it.
You know what? I’m probably better off if people don’t know who I am.”
Tim Crothers is the author of The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever, and he is the co-author of Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court,” the autobiography of Roy Williams.