Fresno State is two games into its season and already it is clear to coach Justin Hutson that New Williams is not the same player he recruited back when he was an assistant at San Diego State, and it is clear to anyone in or around the Bulldogs’ program that Williams is not the same player who struggled a year ago in a reserve role.
A 6-foot-1 guard and transfer from Auburn, Williams has knocked down nine of his 16 shots including 7 of 12 (.583) at the 3-point line.
He is making good decisions with the basketball – just two turnovers in 49 minutes on the floor – and impacting games at the defensive end with six steals including four that were turned into points by the Bulldogs at the other end of the floor.
With the Bulldogs in Fullerton for three games in four days over Thanksgiving weekend in the Wooden Legacy tournament, Williams is averaging 15.5 points per game. At the start of the week he also was first in the Mountain West in steals (3.0 per game), second in 3-point field goal percentage (.583) and third in 3-point field goals (3.5 pg).
But that shot, it wasn’t quite there a year ago.
“I didn’t know he could shoot the ball like that,” said Hutson, 1-1 in his first season at Fresno State. “I mean, he could shoot, but not the way he is now.”
Neither was the confidence he has brought to the floor.
In his first game last season after becoming eligible mid-year, at Utah State, Williams entered at the 4:10 mark in the first half and had a quick steal that led to a 3-pointer.
But there was a turnover at 3:11, then a second turnover at 1:35, and he didn’t get off the bench in the second half of an 81-79 loss.
Williams played in only three more games, a total of five minutes and, really, ended the season with only his work ethic to take into 2018-19.
More than anything, Hutson said, that is why Williams is in line for more minutes on Thursday in the Wooden Legacy, where the Bulldogs open against a 3-0 Northwestern team that has victories on its home floor against New Orleans (82-52), American (63-51) and Binghamton (82-54). They will play Miami or Lasalle on Friday and an opponent to be determined on Sunday before starting a seven-game homestand that will take them into conference play; the first of those games at the Save Mart Center Nov. 28 against Pacific.
Williams was in the gym almost every day over the summer, creating his own playing time in a backcourt that includes a first-team all-conference selection in Deshon Taylor and transfers Braxton Huggins (New Mexico State) and Noah Blackwell (Long Beach State).
“I was doing three workouts a day and going to the weight room every day the entire summer,” Williams said. “I was shooting 1,000 shots every day from different spots, shooting contested shots, shooting open shots. I worked on pick and roll, passing out of the pick and roll, shooting out of the pick and roll. I worked all summer on my game. I also worked on defense and trying to make sure I can get to spots. I still have a lot to work on, but that work this summer really helped me to be ready for my opportunity.
“I stay ready and when my number is called I make sure that I’m ready to deliver, whether that be offensively, defensively if we need a rebound, if we need a steal. I’m always looking to be that spark in whatever way my team needs me to help.”
That opportunity has come early, from Hutson and staff.
“He just worked really hard,” the Bulldogs’ coach said. “He can really shoot the ball and he has a great attitude and a great work ethic. He has some talent, which you can see, so when a guy works hard like that and he’s really coachable then you can get better.
“He’s learning to play hard. He’s shooting the ball and he’s making better decisions so he’s going to get more and more minutes.”