Rich Williams admittedly thought he knew all the answers as an underclassman, but has found them while undergoing transition from role player to team leader and one of more important pieces to Manhattan's success this season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
There was once a time when Rich Williams let his effervescent personality get the best of him.
During one of the first practices in his sophomore year, Manhattan College's extroverted and gregarious swingman took a lackadaisical approach to a defensive drill, prompting head coach Steve Masiello to banish him from the Draddy Gymnasium court.
The Williams we see today is a far cry from the burgeoning talent we saw in 2014. Now a battle-hardened and experienced veteran, the Brooklyn native is quick to recognize the difference between the promising upstart who searched for the right method to channeling his vast potential and the complete package of an all-league player that now leads the Jaspers into what those around the program hope is a resurgence from last season's injury-riddled 13-18 campaign.
"I just got more mature," a humble Williams admitted when reflecting on his journey in Riverdale. "I understand the bigger picture now. I was a kid coming out of high school, thought I knew all the answers. Now I listen more than I talk, so I think that's a big part of my development, just listening and trusting guys around me, and believing what they talk about."
Being born into a culture of winning can be a baptism by fire, so to speak, and in the first part of Williams' career, it was. With the likes of Michael Alvarado, Emmy Andujar, George Beamon, Rhamel Brown and Ashton Pankey firmly entrenched in the rotation during Manhattan's back-to-back Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship runs, playing time was earned; and due to the immense depth of the Jasper roster, not always consistent. It wasn't until his junior season that Williams, along with the since-graduated Shane Richards, was able to truly carve his own imprint on the team; but when opportunity knocked, it was met with a warm embrace.
"Being an older guy, all the young guys look upon me," said Williams with regard to the increased responsibility of setting the tone on and off the court, in and out of the locker room, a role he shares with fellow senior Tyler Wilson. But his ability to be a leader and take initiative was cultivated long before this offseason, with one of the first true moments of clarity coming midway through his sophomore season when he approached Masiello about coming off the bench rather than occupying a spot in the starting five, his rationale being the need to merely provide a spark after feeling the opening minutes of a contest out to gauge the on-court intensity. Needless to say, the voluntary sacrifice paid off shortly thereafter, with the Jaspers punching a second straight ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
"I think that says a lot about his character that he wants to do what's best for the team," Masiello said back in January of 2015, when Williams first expressed his intent to switch gears. "He wants to do what it's about for the team, so I'm really happy."
"I'm just proud of his consistency, how he's grown into being a man and the leader he is off the court," Masiello elaborated recently, bringing the career of his latest precocious talent full circle. "Now he's the guy rooming with Aaron (Walker, one of Manhattan's three incoming freshmen), taking care of him, making sure he understands what's going on off the court. His growth off the basketball court is what I'm really proud of, just his development as a man, being a good son, being a good teammate, a role model in the community. Those are the things I'm really proud of. The basketball ability is at an elite level. We just want to build on that."
"I think the growth of Rich as a leader, you're going to see that emerge," the coach further intimated. "What's nice for him is he has guys like Zavier Turner, Tyler Wilson, Calvin (Crawford) and Zane (Waterman) around him, so that's only going to help him. He has a great supporting cast."
The high praise and lofty expectations still get Williams awe-struck from time to time, as after all, he remains a 22-year-old young man filled with the same sense of wonder a little boy may have when he wakes up on Christmas morning and sees his family's tree adorned with ornaments on its branches and presents underneath it. It is that enjoyment he carries with him into each day, a love of the game that is so often taken for granted, that makes his trials all the more rewarding, his meticulous and diligent labors all the more fruitful.
"I would have never thought I would be here," he said when summarizing his body of work to this point, doing so with his ubiquitous wide grin. "In my freshman year, for instance, Coach would say I was a player who didn't play that much. Every year, my role stepped up. I'm pleased to be where I'm at today, the opportunity that I have."