KNOXVILLE, Tenn — He’s aware of how lightly he was regarded as a college basketball prospect during his time at Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C. Growing up smack in the heart of ACC country, he knows who wrote and called regularly, and who didn’t.
His rankings by recruiting analysts haven’t been erased merely because he has obliterated them with nearly three seasons’ worth of performances for the Tennessee Volunteers. A few simple keystrokes, and there it is: Grant Williams, three stars, No. 191 in the class of 2016.
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Being reminded of this does not seem to provoke Williams. Unlike so many athletes before him, he does not express that such an obvious and enduring slight has driven him to rank among the very best college basketball players of 2019, to stand as the reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and the star player of the nation’s No. 1 team. He understands why he was overlooked and underrated, and why he has traveled so far in such a short period of time.
“I knew I could play. I knew I could compete,” Williams told Sporting News following a 72-60 victory against Missouri on Tuesday. “It took some time. It took some ups and downs, but to be where I’m at now and to have more in store, it’s amazing.”
It also took a most fortunate set of circumstances for Tennessee to find him, and that starts with Vols assistant Desmond Oliver. Before he was hired by the Vols as an assistant coach, Oliver spent five years on the staff at Charlotte, where he spotted Williams early and recruited him to play for the 49ers in Conference USA. But Oliver’s time there ended in 2015 when head coach Alan Major was let go — right about the time Rick Barnes was forced out at Texas and found at Tennessee an ideal place for a fabulous final chapter in an impressive career.
Barnes hired Oliver to his staff because of his extensive regional experience in the Southeast, which also included a five-season stint at Georgia. And Oliver brought along this crazy notion that Williams, a 6-7, 236-pound forward primarily targeted by mid-majors, could succeed in the SEC.
“If it wasn’t for Coach Oliver, I don’t know if I would be here right now,” Williams said. “When I really think about it, the people surrounding me have really helped me get better as a person and a player. My family has always done a great job of being there for me each game and having confidence in me even when I didn’t have that much confidence in myself.
“I was never the most attractive-looking athlete. I wasn’t the guy that was going to outshoot anyone. I was just a guy that would do what I do: more physicality, bringing effort and competing.”
Williams laughs now about arriving at UT and being measured at 17 percent body fat, even after he’d followed his final high school season with what he considered to be a demonic workout regimen — “I was shocked,” he said. With better training and understanding of nutrition, he now is able to play above the rim when necessary — his block of a 3-point attempt by Missouri forward Kevin Puryear on Tuesday was just plain mean — and guard every position on the floor when the Vols employ defensive switches.
He has a simple goal as he endeavors to improve his body: “I want people to be able to say, ‘Grant Williams runs like a gazelle.’ I’ve never had that comparison.”
Williams does average 20.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals and shoots .579 from the field and .835 from the foul line. He has majestic numbers in nearly every basic statistical category that describes a basketball player, and he does it for a team with a 21-1 record that hasn’t lost a game since November.
Should he deliver another month of similar performances, Williams can expect to be named a first-team All-American. Over the past five years, nearly half of players who achieved that distinction were top-25 recruits. Over 70 percent were ranked in the top 100 coming out of high school. Only one, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky in 2015, was lower than 191st, and he took a redshirt year and four seasons of progress to develop into a star.
“I think we knew what we were seeing,” associate head coach Rob Lanier told SN. “We were lucky no one else did.”
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In advance of his senior season in high school, Williams played the summer circuit with Carolina-based Team CP3 alongside such elite teammates as Harry Giles (now with the Sacramento Kings) and Josh Okogie (now with the Minnesota Timberwolves). The Team CP3 profile is inflated, as well, by the sponsorship of NBA superstar Chris Paul. Williams went up against Kentucky-bound Bam Adebayo, now of the Miami Heat, in high school games.
“I was competing, putting the work in,” Williams said. “I knew I was always able to compete with them. It was really a matter of improving my body.”
An excellent student who will graduate this spring with a major in business administration, Williams got plenty of Ivy League offers and seriously considered Harvard. Tennessee was pretty much the only place offering both a high-level education and the opportunity to compete against the best college players.
Williams is not really an exception on this Tennessee team, though, and that’s what makes the Vols exceptional. They stand at No. 1 in the nation with not a single player in the rotation who was ranked in the top 125 of his high school class. No. 3 Duke features three of the top five prospects from last year’s class alone.
According to 247Sports, Volunteers forward Admiral Schofield was 251st in his class. He’s now an All-SEC candidate, at the very least, averaging 16.6 points and 6.3 rebounds. Point guard Jordan Bone was No. 171 in his class, and high school coaches around the Nashville area who competed against him were privately questioning why the Vols would be interested in signing him. Now, he’s got NBA scouts watching his development.
“We have not overachieved. There’s no such thing as overachievement,” Lanier said. “If you achieve something, you did it.”
He even rejected the notion the Vols staff had done an extraordinary scouting job to spot so many three-star prospects capable of excelling at this level. Lanier insisted the good fortune was in finding a group of players with “character, commitment and connection to each other. We have that in abundance.”
It is being challenged at the moment by forces relatively new to Tennessee basketball and entirely new to this group of players. There are eight players with the Vols who’ve experienced one 16-win season, and several of them endured that sort of mediocrity twice. Last year’s SEC regular-season title was unexpected, but now the program’s fans and people who follow college basketball are wondering if this can become the first UT men’s team to reach the Final Four.
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For three weeks now, when Williams and his Tennessee teammates have glanced at any media account of their basketball activities, they have been reminded of the peak they have ascended. They are ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, and absolutely it can be unsettling if they forget not to look down. Players at Kentucky or Duke arrive fully expecting this sort of talk to be part of their experience. It is new to the Vols.
“I think we’re still managing it. We’re still understanding where we’re at,” Williams said. “We still have time to grow. We’re not done yet. It would be different if we just fell off the wagon or we just gave up, but the fact we’re still showing that fight, that effort to claw back, we still have that grit. And that’s how you know we’re the team that we truly are.”
The Vols have played five games since they were voted No. 1 by the AP on Jan. 21. They’ve won each of those games, although the first of those was a too-close-for-comfort overtime road win against meager Vanderbilt. The latest, Tuesday at home against overmatched Missouri, had a most perfunctory feel to it.
No one among the Vols tried to pretend otherwise, even as they extended their winning streak to 17 games.
“I thought some of the guys were a little lethargic,” Barnes told reporters. “I can’t tell you why. It happens. I’ve been doing this long enough to know it can happen to the best of them, but again we found a way of fighting through it to win a game.”
This was their 14th consecutive game against an unranked opponent since they knocked Gonzaga from the top spot in the polls on Dec. 9. They have games coming in the next month against No. 5 Kentucky (Feb. 16 and March 2) and No. 21 LSU (Feb. 23) as well as NCAA Tournament contenders Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn.
“It’s different. We’ve never experienced it. It’s not something we take for granted. It’s not something you’re ever going to forget,” Williams said. “Twenty years from now when I’m talking to my kids, I can be able to say I was on the No. 1 team in the country. It’s an honor and I thank God for it, but we know we have a long way to go.
“We know we haven’t accomplished the goals we want to achieve. There’s a lot of things Tennessee hasn’t done. There’s a whole lot of things we haven’t done. We won an SEC championship, but we want more. We’re kind of greedy in that sense. We want to keep going and keep building on what we have.”
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