Like most high-level hoopers, Illini freshman forward D.J. Williams has prepared for countless basketball seasons—from school ball to AAU and back—but the one upcoming is an all-important fresh start.
Williams played for the most prestigious high program in the state at Simeon, where he was one of three Big Ten-bound ballers on the roster during his senior season. During the summer, Williams competed at the highest level of AAU ball on the EYBL circuit, while also participating in a variety of elite camps over the years.
After his sophomore year, Williams was named to the 2013-14 USA Men’s Developmental National Team along with some of the best young players in the country. Less than eight months later, Williams pledged his commitment to John Groce and Illinois—giving the Illini a bonafide top-50 player nationally at the time.
But taking over the reins from Jabari Parker at Simeon and living up to an assortment of expectations proved to be a tough task for Williams to overcome during his final two high school seasons. A four-year state title streak came to an end for the program, and the buzz surrounding Williams shifted with each string of inconsistent outings.
A lackluster conclusion to his high school career caused opinions to differ on Williams’ collegiate outlook. But it has never been about his talent level.
“With D.J., talent has never been a question,” Scout.com basketball recruiting analyst Brian Snow said. “He’s almost 6-foot-8. He can handle it, he can shoot it, he’s long, he can pass. He checks every box in terms of raw talent. But the question has been desire, effort, toughness, and he hasn’t always shown that. In fact, he’s been very inconsistent. Not only year-to-year or game-to-game, but even half-to-half.”
“Sometimes he’ll make like four plays and you’re like ‘oh my God’, and then he disappears for 20 minutes. For D.J., he’s got to work on that and be the guy who can dominate every single day. To this point, he’s never been that and you wonder if that’s what his DNA is. If he can change in terms of bringing it every day, you’re talking about a potential NBA player. But he also has a very low floor because if it doesn’t click for him, he doesn’t get anything done.”
When Williams committed to Illinois, he was ranked as high as No. 28 in the 2015 class by the ESPN rankings. After it was all said and done, Scout was the only major rankings service that had him in the top 50. Snow talked about the process of forming his opinion on the promising but precarious prospect.
“The first time I saw D.J. was May after his freshman year. You see a kid with his size and his athleticism, and you just think ‘man, he’s got a chance to be special’. But he never got there,” Snow said. “He got to be very good, but he didn’t get to be special. I can’t say my perception really changed. Was I disappointed? Sure, but I still think he can be the player that I saw and first envisioned.”
Embracing the change of scenery
Change is an opportunity for growth, and Williams has taken that to heart since stepping foot on the Illinois campus this summer. Those around the Illini program will tell you that he has come in with a renewed focus and fire on the basketball court.
As the first piece to Groce’s 2015 recruiting class, Williams had days on end to anticipate this next step onto the big stage of Big Ten basketball. His work ethic and engaged approach have been focal points over the last few months.
Williams’ progress during summer workouts was one of the bright spots for the Illini leading up to their European trip in August. He started three of the four games on the trip, as he averaged 7.5 points per game.
With fall practice officially underway and the start of the season just around the corner, Williams is more ready than ever to suit up in the Illini uniform.
“I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it,” Williams said. “This is why I came here and I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”
To combat a new set of challenges, Williams has taken his preparation to another level by turning Ubben into his lab for transformation.
“I’ve changed my whole mentality since coming here. I now have access to the gym 24 hours a day and I’m taking advantage of that,” Williams said. “Obviously, you don’t have that when you’re in high school. I’m trying to be the best I can be and I’m doing everything I can to get that done.”
Riding the freshman rollercoaster
Regardless of your previous destination, there is an inevitable wave of adjustment for freshmen entering the realm of major college basketball. It takes time for the unfamiliar to become familiar when it comes to new teammates, coaches, routines, training sessions, system assignments and more of the like.
Roles are redefined, and the same can be said for the level of competition. Williams and freshman guard Aaron Jordan have gone through the transition together, while something similar awaits fellow freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands when he returns to action.
Groce said he has seen unmistakable progress from his freshmen to this point, but it hasn’t come without the expected bumps in the road.
“Like most freshmen, inconsistent early. And then a tad inconsistent here early in preseason as well, but better than in the summer, which is what you’d expect,” Groce said. “Williams has had some good days. Jordan has had some good days. Both guys care at a really high level about being good. They love to work and they’re quick learners.”
“The goal is to get those guys to string more of those days together so that you have some consistency there.”
Stringing together good days has been a work in progress for Williams, but he is confident that the arrow is pointing in the right direction.
“I feel like things are going good. I’m constantly learning and getting better,” Williams said. “I’ve had good days and bad days out here, but that’s the same with any freshman. So I don’t really worry about that too much. Just come out here and try to get better anyway I can.”
Setting the bar of expectation
The finished product is far more important than the introduction, but Williams’ opening act will not lack importance when it comes to the crucial nature of this season in Champaign.
Depth is a delicacy through the tumultuous grind of a Big Ten season, and the Illini bench will largely hinge on unproven commodities to open up the schedule. The veteran duo of Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn will lock things down on the wing, but Williams, Coleman-Lands and Jordan will be counted on.
How much Groce can get out of that fresh-faced group remains to be seen. Williams will have his fair share of opportunities, and it’s up to him to take advantage.
“In general, I think this year is going to be a learning process for him. I do think he’s going to have to play minutes. But I do think it’s going to be a learning process,” Snow said. “I don’t think he’s going to be All-Freshman in the league. But I think he can play a role, and if you see that light bulb start to come on, I think big things could be in store for him in the future.”
What is the key to igniting that beam of light? Snow said it is all about Williams mentally flipping the switch and bringing competitive fire to the floor.
“It’s a fresh start for everybody that puts on a college uniform,” Snow said. “Whatever it is that motivates D.J. Williams, he has to figure it out and become the player that he could be.”
Snow added that there have been many cases of players utilizing the collegiate transition to dig deeper towards their untapped potential.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Kids take things for granted in high school, and then the light bulb comes on in college—just like sometimes it doesn’t as well. There are plenty of examples either way. There are guys who didn’t bring it and then it all clicks in college. Andre Drummond is a perfect example. He was a kid with all the talent in the world but you could see him score six points quite often. Now, he’s going to be a max player in the NBA.”
Williams' first official game with the Illini sits one month away, and the hype and criticisms of old are equally irrelevant. That new beginning may be exactly what he needs, and Williams has already shown a promising response.
With loads of skill, a fresh mentality and experience playing at a high level, Williams has it all laid out for him to begin what should be a successful career in orange and blue.