Williams seizing the opportunity at Kansas State

KSU-Williams

JANUARY 2015 – For a college basketball player—unless you have freaky skills—success often comes when you take advantage of opportunities. Such is the story of Nino Williams.

Williams, a 6-5 Kansas State senior forward, has a career of opportunities seized. Let’s start with his prep career.

Williams is from St. Louis, but prior to his sophomore year of high school, his school’s coach got fired. He decided to look for other options, and the best one appeared to be at a prep school in Kansas City. However, he quickly realized that it was too good to be true.

Opportunity No. 1 came when he consulted with an AAU teammate who was from Leavenworth, Kan. He ended up moving in with that player’s family. Williams and helped Leavenworth High to the state semifinals. He was voted Mr. Kansas Basketball as a senior by the state’s coaches.

Williams was the No. 89 recruit in America, including No. 20 at small forward, coming out. Opportunity No. 2 came when he signed with Frank Martin and the Wildcats. He quickly learned how hard the game was on the collegiate level. He sustained injuries during his freshman year and received a medical redshirt. His redshirt freshman year, the last year under Martin, Williams played in only 12 games and averaged 2.2 points.College-SponsorThen came Opportunity 3.

Martin moved on to South Carolina and Kansas State brought in Bruce Weber, a coach with the reputation of helping players to hone their skills. Something Weber told Williams made the biggest difference.

“I came here and planned to play at the 3 (small forward). coach told me that I could either play 5 or 10 minutes behind (senior swing man) Rodney McGruder at the 3, or switch to the 4 (power forward) and see how that works out. I moved to the 4 and found out that I was really good at it because I’m very physical. The other guys who play the 4 are usually bigger than me, but I can box them out.”

Weber said Williams didn’t take a lot of coaxing to get him to switch.

“When I first got here, he wanted to be a 3, but there was a logjam,” Weber said. “I asked him and Shane (Southwell) who wanted to be a 4. Nino realized that if he wasn’t a 4 he wasn’t going to play. He took it on. I’m glad that he’s playing well. He deserves it.

“He knows his role. He understands where he is. He knows our system. The ‘coachable’ thing has evolved. His first two years, he had a lot of excuses and answers. We had to say, ‘Nino, keep your mouth shut. Listen and learn.’ That’s part of maturity. I don’t mind if they have a question, but if they always have an excuse, you’re not getting better.”

Opportunity No. 4 came through hard work.

“He’s had some really nice moments the last two years,” Weber said. “But I don’t think he’d worked as hard as he did this past summer. It’s benefitted him. He got into the gym and worked on his shot. He wanted to have a good senior year.”

It was obvious coming into this year sophomore Marcus Foster was the star of K-State’s team. Foster was the leading scorer last season and expectations were that he would only get better. Fellow senior Thomas Gipson, a mobile block of granite under the basket, was the other anchor. With the opponents’ attention focused on those two guys, Williams has stepped forward.

He’s second on the team in scoring—behind Foster—with 13.2 points per game. That’s more than double his previous career high. He also leads the team with 4.8 rebounds per game.

“I think I’m important, but I don’t think I’m that guy,” he said when asked if his skill makes him a good option to complement Foster. “I think our No. 2 guy is Gipson. He gets down low and he demands a double team every time he touches it. I don’t really need the ball in my hands. I get easy baskets on catch-and-shoots and offensive rebounds. I just stick to my role.

“I’m very physical, but I’m a pretty good shooter and I can rebound. I can catch-and-shoot pretty good. Offensive rebounding is a good part of my game. My ball-handling isn’t very good, but my shooting and finishing at the rim is very good.”

Weber said Williams’ best attribute is knowing and filling his role. “He’s been in the system for a while,” Weber said. “He knows what he’s supposed to do. He’s learned to keep making plays instead of worrying about the last play. He’s grown up and matured. He’s a junkyard dog—that’s his position. If everyone had his attitude, it would make it easier for us.”

Williams has really been clicking as the non-conference portion of the schedule winds down. After a rough Hawaiian tournament over Thanksgiving, losing to Arizona and getting blown out by Pittsburgh in Maui, Weber confronted Williams to be more physical and to play loose.

“Coach Weber challenged me when we got back from Hawaii because I wasn’t rebounding that much,” Williams said. “He challenged me to attack the glass and not wait for my teammates to find me.”

Williams earned Big 12 Player of the Week honors for December 8-14, averaging 17 points and 9.5 rebounds in victories over Bradley and Savannah State.

“I got a lot of easy layups and I went to the free-throw line a lot, so I ended up having two big scoring nights and I was on the boards a lot,” he said. His hot play continued in the Wildcats’ final game before the Christmas break. Williams led the Wildcats with 17 points in a victory over Texas A&M at Sprint Center.

Weber said Williams “plays happy.”

“He’s a good teammate. Everyone likes him,” Weber said. “While Thomas worries about everything, Nino just plays.”

That attitude comes from Williams’ desire to be on the court. When asked if he preferred the power forward position or the small forward that better fits his physique, he hemmed and hawed before saying, “It really doesn’t matter, as long as I’m on the court.”

That time is coming to a close. Williams’ playing career soon will be done. He probably won’t play at the next level, because of his size and what Weber calls “a little bit of ‘old man knees.’ ”

Williams’ desire to stay near the court means he might get into coaching. He was graduated last spring with a social science degree. He’s working on his master’s degree in conflict analysis and trauma studies.

That’s a fancy way of saying he’s learning to recognize and take advantage of opportunities.

Article by David Smale

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