Piper's points: Switch has flipped for Illini freshman D.J. Williams

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down the progression of Illini freshman D.J. Williams, which should make fans excited for the future.

The emergence of Illini freshman D.J. Williams continued on Tuesday night, as he posted eight points and a career-high five rebounds in an 82-66 win over Rutgers at the State Farm Center.

Williams has looked like a completely different player the last two weeks. During a four-game stretch, he has totaled 28 points and 13 rebounds in 73 minutes combined. Williams had 19 points and 18 rebounds combined in his previous 17 games of action.

He has also become much more efficient. Williams has shot 11-of-19 (57.9 percent) from the field the last four games. He was just 6-of-24 (25 percent) from the field prior to that.

The biggest catalysts for his transformation have gone on behind the scenes with Williams' preparation and effort level in practice.

"Just preparing the right way like I've been doing recently," Williams said last week. "Just trying to stay consistent with my work ethic and on film. Just knowing what I've got to do to stay on the court."

The key there has unquestionably been his energy.

"I feel like I'm bring more energy. I'm learning how to play hard more consistently," Williams said. "In high school, I didn't notice how important it was to play hard every single possession and how impactful that can be for your team."

Illini head coach John Groce can certainly see the impact.

"It's fun to watch him right now," Groce said. "His effort and energy level is so good for our team. It's contagious. He's communicating. He's making plays at both ends. He's a two-way player right now - so valuable. I'm very, very excited for him and about him."

While excitement for the Illini fan base has been subdued this season, there's no question that Williams' progression should be a reason to be excited for the future.

***

"To learn to succeed, you must first learn to fail."

The wise words from basketball legend Michael Jordan have rung true for Williams this season.

For Williams, talent has never been a question. He arrived in Champaign this past summer with all the measurables and natural ability to be a great player. But putting it all together was another story.

Williams was ranked as high as No. 28 in the 2015 class by ESPN when he committed to Illinois prior to his junior season. But he never reached his ceiling on the high school or AAU stage, as Scout was the only major rankings service that had him in the top 50 when it was all said and done.

Aggressiveness, effort and toughness were all areas of critique for Williams, which led to vast inconsistency. The challenge for Groce and his staff was to pull that out of him, but they knew it would be a process.

They didn't know when or where it would happen, but the hope was that something would eventually click.

Three months ago, Williams sat the bench at the Dunkin' Donuts Center when the Illini battled the Providence. He never took his warm-up off against UAB, Iowa State or Notre Dame either.

Even just a few weeks ago, Williams played six minutes combined over a three-game span. The life of a learning freshman.

But Williams stayed positive and persistent. The fruits of his labor have been easily apparent over the last two weeks, as he's shown Illini fans things that haven't seen from him before.

Tuesday night was one of those times. Late in the first half, Williams tracked down a miss for an offensive board and strong finish at the basket. He couldn't help but crack a big smile on his way up the court.

That look on his face is far different from the one he had on the bench at Providence earlier this season - and the player looks far different as well.

***

The change in Williams isn't hard to see. Scout national basketball analyst Brian Snow talked to IlliniInquirer.com this fall about the incoming freshman.

"He checks every box in terms of raw talent. But the question has been desire, effort, toughness, and he hasn't always shown that," Snow said. "In fact, he's been very inconsistent. Not only year-to-year or game-to-game, but even half-to-half."

Snow added that he was concerned whether Williams would figure it out.

"Whatever it is that motivates D.J. Williams, he has to figure it out and become the player that he could be."

That motivator has certainly been tied to his undesirable position on the bench earlier this season. Groce was asked about what buttons he's been able to push with Williams to get consistently favorable results.

"I'd like to tell you that I'm a mad scientist and all that," Groce said. "But the reality of it is I think sometimes when you're a freshman - a lot like (Malcolm) Hill and (Kendrick) Nunn had to do - you got to hit rock bottom. Obviously, he's very talented. We all know that. He's an unbelievable kid. But when you're getting DNPs (did not play), he probably didn't like that a whole lot - didn't enjoy that. So the alternative to that is buy in, play the right way, play with motor, play with effort, play with energy."

Groce added that it reminds him a little bit of a scene from Hoosiers.

"Gene Hackman has a line in the movie where someone asked him about a certain player, and he says 'I'm going to break him down and then I'm gonna build him back up'. That's kind of what's happened with D.J.," Groce said. "Now, he's had day after day of consistent energy and motor. He's just playing the right way."

***

Hill sat at the podium during the same press conference on Tuesday night. He was coming off a smooth outing of 22 points and 10 rebounds.

The junior forward has done it all for the Illini this season. He ranks third in the Big Ten with 18.5 points per game. He's also on his way to being the second player in Illini history to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists in the same season.

Hill is what you'd call big-time. But things weren't always so spectacular for him in an Illini uniform. As a freshman, he played sparingly through the first three months of the season. It wasn't until February - like Williams - when things started to click.

Hill said that he sees many similarities between the two situations.

"I'd say the only thing that's probably different with us in our game - to be honest, he kind of reminds me of myself - is getting better on his three-point shot," Hill said. "I feel like everything else is the same. He's being aggressive, which we need him to be. I was really happy for him last game against Northwestern. He just keeps improving."

The plays Williams is making are nothing new to Hill's eyes.

"I've said this throughout the whole year, I see this all the time in practice. It's just that he has to get that confidence in the game, which he is doing."

Williams has plenty of guys in his corner, who see the progress and what he can become. One of those guys is fellow Simeon product and current Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker. The former first-round pick was in attendance at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday to watch his Simeon brethren, and he had some words from Williams afterwards.

"He just told me to keep workin'," Williams said. "It's tough as a freshman. Even he had tough times at Duke. He said just keep workin' and fight through the adversity."

***

Williams has done that, and he is one of a handful of individuals who have vastly improved for the Illini of late.

Freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands has proven to be a big-time shot-maker, as he has hit 18 threes in the last four games. Meanwhile, junior big man Maverick Morgan continues his stretch of nice outings. Morgan had 17 points, five rebounds and four blocks on Tuesday night.

Morgan has posted double-digit points in four straight games, which is the first time he's done that in his career. Groce is excited about what he has seen.

"You see individuals improving rapidly. I think our team is really starting to come together," he said. "I'm excited about that."

The next step is getting those vast improvements to lead to one as a collective group. After the win against Rutgers, the Illini are still 12-14 overall and 4-9 in Big Ten play. Three of their conference wins have come against winless teams in Big Ten play.

But Groce feels that his team is close to meshing and taking significant steps forward.

"No question, I do for sure. A lot of it is tied to that individual improvement. But they're starting to play the right way," Groce said. "They're connected a lot more. I see more vocal communication."

"We're improving a lot. We're still a work in progress, but we've made a lot of strides. That's pretty neat."

***

It remains to be seen if the Illini can put a run together and become a challenge for someone in the Big Ten tournament - even knowing that they won't be dancing without winning the whole thing.

But the progress of Williams is an example of why Orange and Blue fans can feel good about the future. The Illini will have a talented roster going into next season.

Beyond that, they will have Coleman-Lands, Williams, Michael Finke, Leron Black and Te'Jon Lucas to form a nice nucleus. Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols have the potential to be solid contributors as well. And that's not even mentioning the arrival of the all-important 2017 class.

With newly-hired athletic director Josh Whitman coming in, it's time to start thinking about some of the sells Groce has for the future. Williams and Coleman-Lands are big ones.

Snow had some encouraging comments about Williams if he were to figure it all out.

"If he can change in terms of bringing it every day, you're talking about a potential NBA player," Snow said.

He added that he believed Williams' freshman year would be a learning experience, which it has been. But he'd get the opportunity to play, and his reaction to that would be a litmus test for the next three years.

"If you see that light bulb start to come on, I think big things could be in store for him in the future," Snow said.

That light bulb is on right now.


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