COLUMBIA, Mo. — Wearing his stylish glasses and decked out in sports coat and tie for his media guide profile, Missouri’s Johnathan Williams III doesn’t look the part of lunch-pail role player. Aspiring accountant, perhaps, but definitely not a garbage-collector type.
At 208 pounds, according to the media guide, anyway, Williams lacks the bulk typically required to thrive as a banger in the low post. And considering the 6-foot-9 freshman from Memphis came to Missouri with the loftiest credentials of any recruit in recent history, you would expect him to make his mark more as a scorer than rebounder.
Williams certainly possesses the skills to become a big-time point producer someday. But until that day arrives, he’s figured out how he can make an impact in any game.
While taking just five shots, the young man his teammates call “J3” proved as important as any player on the floor in the Tigers’ 80-71 victory over No. 18 UCLA on Saturday. Williams grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds, blocked two shots and altered numerous others and, despite limited touches in Missouri’s guard-oriented offense, managed to score 10 points and finish with his second double-double.
After UCLA coach Steve Alford was asked about the Tigers’ terrific trio of Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross, all of whom topped 20 points, he brought up Williams on his own.
“He was as big a key as anything,” Alford said.
Especially in the second half, when Missouri rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit.
Williams appeared to be headed for a third consecutive non-productive game after a first half he finished with two points and five rebounds. But after a little halftime motivation from coach Frank Haith, Williams took over inside for much of the second half. In one stretch, he scored six points on offensive rebounds, including two on free throws with 9:30 remaining that gave Missouri a lead, 62-60, that it would keep the rest of the way.
“Coach lit a fire under him,” said Brown, who led the Tigers with 22 points. “He went out there and played inspired basketball.”
He wasn’t the only one. UCLA, which came in averaging 90.6 points, was on its way to its norm during a 45-point first half when it made 15 of 30 shots, including five of 12 3-pointers. But then the Tigers turned up the defense. The Bruins (8-1) went 0 for 8 on 3-pointers and 8 for 31 overall after intermission to finish with their lowest output of the season.
“Give Missouri a lot of credit,” Alford said. “They got us out of what we normally like to do. The first half we did the things we’ve been doing all year — we played with good pace, we shared the ball, we were pretty active defensively. In the second half … we didn’t do those things.”
The victory was the first by an SEC team over a ranked team this season and left Missouri (9-0) as the conference’s only unbeaten team. It also extended the Tigers’ home winning streak to 24 games, longest in the nation, and their non-conference winning streak to 79 games.
“I thought we turned the ball over way too much in the first half (12 turnovers), so there were a lot of buckets in the transition in the first half,” Haith said. “Once we were able to set our defense and guard, we were going to be OK. This team has really improved defensively.”
Williams has been a key reason why. A starter since the first game, Williams has endured his share of rookie ups and downs. He had 17 rebounds against Gardner-Webb and a double-double against IUPUI, but scored a total of two points with eight rebounds against Nevada and West Virginia.
He not only has had to adjust to the faster, more physical college game, he has had to settle into a role far different than he had last year, when he averaged 18.9 points and led Southwind High to a Tennessee state title.
“That’s hard for a freshman,” Haith said. “He was the guy, he was able to shoot 3s and do a lot of different things. When you go to college, you have to understand your role. That’s why you see freshmen take a while to get adjusted to play to help their team win. He’s doing a great job of understanding that’s what we need him to do for us in order to win.”
Even if he doesn’t look the part.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter (@stanmcneal) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.