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Origin Story: Eric Williams Jr.’s path from modest recruit to coveted transfer target

Two years ago, the versatile wing was a last-minute pickup for Duquesne. Today, the Michigan native’s smooth jumper and toughness on the glass have him on Missouri’s wish list. Can the Tigers reel him in?

Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament - Second Round

At 6-foot-6, 205 pounds, Eric Williams Jr. checks off boxes for the physical dimension of the modern 3-and-D wing. Skim the rows and columns of Synergy’s database, and the Duquesne sophomore also passes muster. Knocking down 40.8 percent of catch-and-shoot jumpers helps, but the Michigan native is malleable and sound at the defensive end, allowing just 35.4 percent shooting. And just for good measure, he graded out as the top rebounding wing last season in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Stated simply: there’s a reason Missouri, Oregon, and Nebraska are wooing Williams, who in a week has become a coveted commodity as any in the spring transfer market.

Two years ago, though, Williams needed a late tryout in Akron to lockup a scholarship offer, and as a rising sophomore in high school, he was one of the last additions to a grassroots team. In an era where hordes of recruiting writers and videographers track every movement of elite prospects, Williams in another sort of genuine article — a late-bloomer.

“It was better than it happened this way,” Williams told Rock M Nation last week. “Rather than me getting all the hype at a younger age, just being overlooked helped add fuel to the fire. It’s like, don’t worry about that stuff. Just keep working.”

‘We kind of took a chance on him’

NCAA Basketball: Duquesne at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“We almost didn’t take him,” program director Wendell Green said as the Michigan Playmakers rode to Grand Rapids last Friday. “He was on the border, man.”

Five years ago, Williams only stood 6-foot-1, owned a knuckleball for a jumper and had a tendency to stand and watch as others chased down rebounds. Looking to ramp up his development, he’d already transferred 40 minutes south to play for New Haven High School, which was gearing up for a dominant run in Class B, the state’s second-largest division. Now, he was clawing for a slot on the roster.

“We just saw, you know, he kind of asked questions made a few hustle plays — some things other kids didn’t do at tryouts,” Green said. “We kind of took a chance on him, and it worked out great.”

What Williams lacked in measurables and shooting mechanics, he made up for by fitting seamlessly into a program that skews its focus toward the defensive end of the floor. The Playmakers’ approach can be distilled easily: a man-to-man defense that denies easy ball reversals, gets into a ball-handler’s chest and uses resulting mistakes to kickstart its offense.

Focusing on a shell drill in practice isn’t revolutionary, but Green says his staff tries to focus on teaching a wider variety of coverages for ball screens along with the basics of seeing ball and man and keeping your butt to the baseline. “We go through every day, you know, how to open up on screens, how to hedge high off the ball screens, getting through the gaps, letting guys through,” Green said.

If Williams’ offensive repertoire needed polishing, he could at the very least be counted on to defend consistently. At the same time, he ditched his passive persona on the backboards. “By the time he came back to us as a junior, he really was active in terms of not just standing around,” Green said. “He was always trying to figure out where the shot is coming off at. He worked at it.”

Along the way, his guide hand moved off the top of the ball, he honed a floater and added the jump-stop to his arsenal. Yet Williams has never been a burner. Instead, he plays with pace, understanding when to change speeds and how to carve out space to get a shot off.

When he loads up to shoot, Williams doesn’t explode into his shot or lift his shoulders. Yet his shot comes off his hand cleanly, the ball rotating three times on parabolic trajectory toward the rim. Even now, when a defender gets a hand in his face, Williams still posts a 50.6 effective-field-goal percentage.

Asked how opposing defenses treat him today, Williams was blunt. “They run me off the line,” he replied.

At New Haven, Williams, who sprouted to 6-foot-5 before his senior season, became the focal point of a program trying to break through. Under coach Tedaro France, the Rockets had reached the Class B quarterfinals four consecutive seasons, falling every time. Ahead of the 2017 season, though, they had Williams and Romeo Weems, a sophomore and future top-50 prospect, in the fold.

Still, Division I staffs didn’t race to Macomb County for open gyms to see and be seen by Williams. For the most part, his suitors were more modest in the form of regional NAIA and Division 2 programs. At one point, Arkansas Pine-Bluff was his reportedly his best offer.

“It surprised me that his recruitment was so slow with so many coaches on all levels coming in to see Romeo,” said one long-time prep scout familiar with the eastern side of the state.

A late-spring steal

On film, Williams’ breakout isn’t an action-packed sequence. Instead, it’s a more fundamental oeuvre: flaring out for jumpers, crashing the glass for putbacks, turnaround jumpers in the mid-post and running the wing in transition. If pouring in 50 points can seem placid, Williams proved it in the opening game of Macomb Area Conference playoffs.

And for an encore, Williams hung a 40-spot the next night out.

Ironically, those outings underscored the difficulty Williams, who wound up averaging 20.9 points and 6.8 rebounds, had pinging on recruiters’ radars. “The conference he played in,” another Michigan-based scout said, “isn’t all that strong.” At the same time, the assistant coaches filing into the gym were from high-major programs trying to establish an early rapport with Weems.

“I loved him more than most,” the same Michigan-based scout said. “I loved his game and thought he was D1 for a while. I didn’t think he’d be as good as he has been the last two years truth be told.”

Piling up points at the start of what became a state title run pinged loud enough for Charles Thompson, an assistant on Keith Dambrot’s staff at Akron. Ironically, the Zips didn’t have a scholarship to hand out, but Thompson, who had played at Eastern Michigan and recruited the state, sold his boss on continuing the courtship.

When Dambrot and his staff moved on to Duquesne, they faced a roster overhaul and a choice. Should they chase transfers and JUCO prospects? Or, instead, would it be more prudent to bring in young talent, develop it slowly and incubate a veteran core? They opted for the latter, a decision that made Williams an integral part of their blueprint.

“Coach [Thompson] came out to see me, and I ended up doing pretty good,” Williams recalled. “He was like, ‘Well can you down on a Tuesday and come play?’ So pretty much, I get another try out to get a scholarship.”

After returning home, Williams only needed five days to make up his mind and pledge to the Dukes. No one needed to tell Dambrot it was a coup. “Relatively speaking, it was a fairly easy get for us,” he said last January.

Fast start, new beginning

NCAA Basketball: Duquesne at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The youth movement initiated by Dambrot paid quick dividends for Williams, who only needed four games to lead the Dukes in the scoring column with 18 points in a loss to Robert Morris. Three weeks later, he yanked down 12 boards in a win over Coppin State. Against Dayton, he paced Duquesne with 15 points, leading the program to its first win over the perennial A10 power.

By late January of 2018, he was just shy of averaging a double-double, and Dambrot put the ball entrusted Williams to be the difference late in tight games. Against Rhode Island, Williams curled off a screen at the top of the key, split two defenders and arced in a floater over Cyril Lavinge to pull the Dukes even with 28.6 seconds left — a moment soured on the other end when Stanford Robinson canned a corner 3-pointer to help the 24th-ranked Rams escape.

Eric Williams Jr. | 2018-19 — Advanced Stats

14 7 1.4 50.3 54.2 0.957 0.784 10.3 16.9
Sports Reference, KenPom, Synergy Sports

“He’s always produced everywhere he’s been,” a scout said. “At New Haven leading them to a state title, for the Playmakers, where they were arguably the best AAU team in the state —including shoe teams that year — and then obviously at Duquesne. He just puts numbers up.”

Consider this nugget as an example: The only freshmen to finish ahead of Williams in rebounding were a handful of top-50 prospects in Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba, Brandon McCoy, Wendell Carter Jr. and Oshae Brissett. It also explains how he posted 11 double-doubles en route to a spot on the A10’s All-Rookie team.

Late in a sophomore campaign that didn’t see Williams slump, a thought entered his mind, one becoming more routine among players who quickly thrive in a mid-major league. How would I fare at a higher level? When Williams broached the idea in a meeting with Dambrot, he says his coach didn’t chafe at the suggestion, either.

“It was cool,” Williams said. “It wasn’t nothing. They were supportive. They’ve always wanted what was best for me as well.”

Missouri’s swift response to Williams’ entry into the transfer portal wasn’t a shock. While on Greg Kampe’s staff at Oakland, current MU assistant coach Cornell Mann touched base with Williams during the wing’s prep career. While the two developed a rapport, the recruitment never picked up steam. “I’d say a little bit, but not, that is not that much,” Williams recalled. “I think it wasn’t really up to him at the time.”

At this juncture, Mann’s connections to his home state are well known, and they helped secure the commitment of combo forward Tray Jackson last fall. Late last week, MU hosted Williams on an official visit, but it’s likely patience will be warranted. Oregon and Nebraska conducted in-home visits just before Williams jetted south, and he’ll take visits to Eugene and Lincoln before all is said and done.

“I’m just kind of seeing which one I feel is the right fit for me,” Williams said. “I mean, I didn’t have this that much interest coming out of high school at all. So it’s a little different.”

Shared roots aren’t the only reason Mizzou might find itself a viable contender. Schematically, the Tigers’ system mirrors what Williams ran as a member of the Playmakers and, to a degree, in Pittsburgh under Dambrot. In theory, there will be opportunities to attack on the secondary break and ample spot-up opportunities, whether it’s out of a Horns set, 1-4 high look, a traditional box set or running split cuts on the weak side of the floor.

And while those particulars will be weighted in any calculus Williams uses, the early days of his recruitment were rooted more in soft skills and whether he sensed kismet with a new program. He’s confident his body of work speaks for itself.

“It doesn’t really matter as long as the coach and I have a good level of trust,” Williams said. “If I have good chemistry with the teammates, I think can adjust. I’ve seen a lot. I’m not saying I know everything, but I think I’ve been able to show I can do that.”