Sports

UNC’s Kenny Williams, who was once afraid to shoot, is ready to take on a bigger role

They always wondered why he wouldn’t just shoot the ball. He was open.

“Shoot Kenny! Shoot!” Kenny Williams’ mother, Sherri Towns, would yell from the stands at his AAU basketball games. “Why is he not shooting?”

Instead, he’d pass up the shot. His coaches, teammates and parents couldn’t figure it out. They knew he had the ability. He was one of the best players on the court.

His AAU coach at the time, Dallas Simmons, would tell him, “Kenny, if you don’t shoot the next shot, I’m going to take you out.”

“You’d see it in practice, you’d see it in games,” Simmons said. “He was long, he was athletic, he had a good stroke.”

But if he missed a couple, he’d stop shooting.

“I think he didn’t want to appear as a selfish player,” his father, Kenny Williams, said.

That, and the younger Williams, now a senior guard at North Carolina, and its best 3-point shooter, struggled with confidence in middle school and for part of his high school career. It affected his play at times, and even extended into his freshman season at UNC. It took Williams 32 games before he hit his first 3-pointer.

He had been playing sparingly, and after a loss to Duke that season, Williams briefly thought about transferring.

But his teammates told him to be patient. Marcus Paige, UNC’s senior captain that year, told him his shot was coming. Williams trusted him and said he never thought about transferring from UNC ever again.

During the ACC tournament that year, his shot was about to come. He was going to make it.

Deciding to listen

Williams had always been a standout athlete. Neither of his parents played college basketball, but Williams seemed to be a natural.

His parents had always taught him the importance of hard work.

Williams played for Boo Williams’ AAU basketball team when he got to high school. It was one of the top AAU programs in the country, and he played up an age group. He also made the varsity basketball team at Lloyd C. Bird High School in Richmond, Va. as a freshman. His high school basketball coach, Troy Manns, recognized his talent, too.

After Williams’ ninth grade year at Bird, the team’s best player, Rob Johnson, who later played for Indiana University, had decided to transfer.

Manns said Williams didn’t shoot much then, but he knew Williams was good enough to transfer too. So to convince Williams to stay, Manns told Williams that he was going to be his “go-to guy.”

“I told him, it’s 20 points a game out there for you if you want them,” Manns said.

His coach was counting on him and Williams jumped at the opportunity despite his continued lack of confidence.

“They saw the potential and I hadn’t seen it,” Williams said. “I hadn’t recognized it yet. They were trying to find a way to bring it out.”

There were a lot of expectations. So he decided to listen to what everyone had been telling him and he started to shoot the ball.

Williams set a school record with 50 points in a game and finished his high school career averaging 15.7 points per game.

“He could have easily averaged 25 or 30 points per game,” Manns said. “I’ve never had a high school player who wants to win as badly as he does. He has so much ability that he hasn’t shown. I really think it’s going to come out this year.”

By the time Williams was a junior in high school, he began to receive interest from multiple schools, including UNC and Virginia Commonwealth.

UNC coach Roy Williams said when he first saw Kenny Williams play he didn’t know who he was. But he saw him hit a few 3’s, and watched him take ‘two or three’ charges.

“And I loved both of those things,” Roy Williams said.

Kenny Williams’ dream school had always been UNC, but he signed with VCU because it was close to home and his family would be able to see him play. He also wanted to play for VCU’s coach at the time, Shaka Smart.

Then Smart left VCU for Texas, and Williams was granted a release from his National Letter of Intent.

Roy Williams said he called to find out whether he would still be interested in coming to UNC. Kenny Williams was, and he eventually accepted their offer. He said it was the best decision he has ever made.

“This is three and a half years, going on four years that I wouldn’t trade anything for the world,” Kenny Williams said.

His first 3

The shot that finally went in during the ACC tournament came on March 10, 2016, against Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals.

Prior to the game, Paige, one of the team’s captains sat next to Williams, then a freshman, on the team bus. Paige looked at Williams and said, “You’re going to make your first 3 here.”

Paige was confident in Williams. Roy Williams was too. He put the freshman in the game in a crucial moment in the second half. UNC was up by eight points with less than 10 minutes left.

UNC’s Brice Johnson grabbed a defensive rebound and passed the ball to Nate Britt, who dribbled up court. Williams was on the right wing with his hand raised. Britt found him, and Williams shot it. As he released the ball, Paige, who was on the bench, stood up and held up three fingers.

The ball went through the net. His coaches and teammates jumped up and down on the bench, as if they had just won the national championship. UNC assistant basketball coach Hubert Davis, who was also jumping, still remembers that shot.

“All of us knew how much Kenny wanted to finally make one,” Davis said. “Because he was making so many in practice, we wanted it for him as much as he wanted it. So when it went in, all of us were just elated.”

Williams often goes online to watch that moment again.

“The fact that they were genuine in what they were saying,” Williams said, “and to be ...even more excited than what they thought when I hit my first 3 was huge for me moving forward.”

His success continued into his sophomore year. Things had finally come together for Williams.

He was now a starter for a championship-caliber team. He was UNC’s defensive stopper. It took him two games into his sophomore season to hit his first 3-pointer. The Tar Heels were the best team in the country that year, and he was on top of the world.

Accepting the challenge

On Feb. 14, 2017, Williams suffered a knee injury in practice that ended his sophomore season only a month before the NCAA tournament. He went down into a lunge during stretching and couldn’t come back up. He had torn his meniscus.

He needed to have surgery and missed the next 12 weeks, including the national championship game. The Tar Heels beat Gonzaga 71-65 to win the title.

While he was hurt that he couldn’t contribute, he worked hard to get back to full strength for his junior season.

He re-established his role as UNC’s defensive stopper and became its best 3-point shooter. He averaged a career-high 11.4 points per game last season, hit 72 3-pointers, and shot 40 percent from behind the 3-point line.

Roy Williams said last year was Kenny Williams’ breakout season.

“He’s our best perimeter defender,” Roy Williams said. “And I think he’s even better this year than he was last year. I’ve been using him as an example for the other guys. But he’s been shooting the ball in the hole as well too. He and Cam have shot it better than anybody else so far.”

Kenny Williams said he wants to be a lot more active this season. He wants to affect the game on the defensive and offensive end.

Williams said during his exit interview last year, his coaches said they wanted him to put the ball on the floor more, and not just be a spot up shooter.

That will require a lot of confidence. But Williams doesn’t appeared worried.

He’s accepted the challenge.

UNC at Wofford

When: 7 p.m., Tuesday

Where: Spartanburg, S.C.

TV: ESPN2

Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander
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