Bryson Williams, the former Roosevelt High and Fresno State standout, says that it was a basketball decision and nothing else that led him to transfer to Texas-El Paso.
Leaving home and what could have been the best Bulldogs team in years was all about opportunity, a chance to improve his overall game – the shot, the defense, the rebounding, all of it.
If there still are questions all these months later, he gets that. When coach Rodney Terry bolted the Fresno State program for UTEP after a fourth 20-win Bulldogs season in five years, Williams remembers what went through his mind. “El Paso …?”
But it couldn’t be going any better for the 6-foot-8 forward, who as a Fresno State sophomore in 2017-18 earned third-team All-Mountain West Conference honors when averaging 13.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game for Terry and the Bulldogs.
“I just wanted to come to a place where I knew that I could be at my full potential and become a better player all around, become more responsible as a player, more mature a player,” he said in an interview at UTEP last week. “I wanted to come to a place where I know that I had a coach that believed in me and is going to make me better as a player and as a man.
“The facilities we have here, we can come in here 24/7 and work out any time we want. The school culture around here is nice. That’s what the decision was. It wasn’t personal or anything like that. It was about becoming the best player that I can be.”
Several Fresno connections
The Miners, a group that includes former Fresno High guard Daryl Edwards and former San Joaquin Memorial High guard Deon Stroud as well as three former Bulldogs in forward Eric Vila and guards Ountae Campbell and Gilles Dekoninck, had just finished practice at the Foster-Stevens Basketball Center when Williams sat down for an interview.
In that setting, the transfer made perfect sense.
The basketball facility at UTEP has two full courts, one for the men’s program and one for the women’s. There is a weight room right across the hall from the gym, a training room, locker rooms. Both programs have theaters for film work, office space, conference rooms.
The players get training table – three meals a day year round.
Walk in the door, and front and center is college basketball history – a mural of the Texas Western team (as the university was known then) coached by Don Haskins that beat Kentucky for the 1966 NCAA championship, the first team with five African-American starters to win the title.
Terry has a spacious office with windows that look out over the practice court.
He also has prominently displayed an autographed basketball from the Bulldogs’ 2015-16 NCAA Tournament team.
The facility, it also has two shooting guns – that work – which was big for Williams.
At 6-8 he was one of the best bigs in the Mountain West, a deft scorer around the rim and mid-post. He could rebound, in and out of his area, and block shots. He could handle the ball. He could defend multiple positions on the floor.
The shot, though, was a point of emphasis. In two seasons at Fresno State he took just four shots from the 3-point line, making one.
“At this stage of his career, that’s a big deal,” Terry said.
Williams, who also checked out Oregon and Arizona before enrolling at UTEP, said it was more than that.
“Of course, I wanted to be a better shooter, which I really put a lot of work toward,” he said. “But it was becoming a better defender, being smarter on defense and not getting two quick fouls in the first half. It was learning the game, becoming a smarter player. It was learning how to take constructive criticism.
“Every little part of my game, I’m trying to improve every area to make myself an overall basketball player. When I tell you the best player that I can possibly be, I mean really the best player I can possibly be in every area.”
Over the summer he was committed to getting 1,000 shots a day from the 3-point line. He would set up the shooting gun in the gym, and just go to work. The ball slips through the rim, the gun shoots it right back.
“He was making more than our guards were making, which is a problem,” Terry joked.
The results are there. During and after the Miners’ practice, he knocked 3-pointers down at a good rate.
Fresno State has those guns, too. But last season they just sat in a corner of the gym – they were broken. Even getting into the North Gym during the summer could at times be an iffy proposition – there could be scheduling conflicts with a facility that is used by four sports programs.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Fresno State,” Williams said. “I love Fresno State to this day. That’s where I started off. I have great memories there. I made great friends there. That’s home. That’s always going to be home. But I just had to make a decision for myself.
“It was tough, but it’s working out for the better. Overall, I just feel like it’s a better situation for me. I feel like it’s a better situation with basketball. I miss my family and all that, but at the end of the day it’s about getting better. That’s what the end goal is.”
“Bryson is one of those kids that, you may coach for 30 years, and you may not get a chance to coach another Bryson Williams,” Terry said. “Forget about basketball, he’s just an unbelievable kid, the way he carries himself and his mannerism. He has been raised right. We go to the same church every Sunday.
“You’re not going to have a lot of Bryson Williamses – and when you do have an opportunity to coach a guy like that you have to bottle that experience up, because he’s such a phenomenal kid. We know what he does in basketball and he has a chance to be as good as he wants to be because he works at it at another level.”
The Miners were just 8-21 last season, Terry’s first at UTEP. But they played young, just as he did in his first season at Fresno State before getting the program moving at a good clip in the right direction.
This season, Williams leads a group of Division I transfers at UTEP who could flip the number of wins and losses from a year ago. Williams said this team could do big things in Conference USA. The NCAA Tournament obviously is a goal – the Miners’ last dance was in 2009-10.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect coming to El Paso,” he said. “Before coming here I didn’t even know about El Paso. I didn’t know about the city. I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew what to expect is what the coaches and everybody were telling me. But getting out here, the people are very nice, very generous. It’s a basketball culture, so everybody has expectations for the basketball program and all they want is to win and that’s all we want to do. You have that extra motivation, that extra push for you to just go.
“It’s a very good situation. It’s beyond what I could have even imagined.”