I hoped it would never come to this, but it appears that I, Matt O’Neall, am one of the last remaining Da’Monte Williams fans amongst the Illini faithful.
Why? Scroll back up to the lead photo at the top.
That’s my favorite photo from the 2018-19 season. Williams wrestles the ball away from former Illini Mark Smith, while former Illini signee Javon Pickett looks on. Both Mizzou players were a part of Williams’ recruiting class along with Jeremiah Tilmon. Four highly regarded in-state prospects were signed on to play at Illinois, and, by their sophomore season, only Da’Monte is left.
The struggle is apparent in that photograph, and it’s been apparent for Williams the last three years. He tore his ACL in December 2016 and missed the rest of his senior season. The coach that recruited him and signed him was fired in March 2017. His peers and friends from his home state who had signed on to play with him at Illinois decommitted and transferred over the next calendar year. His entire world and outlook had changed in a matter of months.
He’s had his struggles on the court, but Williams has always fought. He’s always done the little things. He’s shown flashes of his dad’s playmaking. And he’s shown flashes of that athleticism we saw at Manual before the injury.
Most of Williams’ game is theoretical, and still largely based on potential. His impact is largely unquantifiable and described with synonyms for intangible. Not every player is going to light the world on fire at 18 years old, and not every player is going live up to the expectations their father left for them. But I’m pretty damn sure that not every player could persevere, fight, and work as hard as Da’Monte Williams does.
I will never give up on Williams and I will always love watching him play. I will be the last one screaming about his IQ, feel, defensive impact and contributions to winning, even if he never becomes the player I hoped he could be.
With all of that said, I can no longer delay the inevitable, we have to jump into this review.
By the Numbers
They aren’t great, folks.
Williams averaged 3.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.8 steals per game in 33 games and 18 starts this year. Williams was sixth on the team in minutes at 21 per game and earned the starting nod for good around the halfway mark of the season. The gripe with Williams is that he doesn’t provide enough raw production for a starter, or a player receiving starter’s minutes.
His scoring is actually down a tenth of a point this season, and his shot attempts per game dropped from 3.4 to 2.8 even though he played five more minutes per game and was playing in much more consistent lineups game to game.
An encouraging sign is that his three point shooting went from 22% as a freshman to 32% as a sophomore. He’s not an automatic miss or a complete zero from behind the arc anymore. He’s shot 70% from the line both seasons on just over an attempt per game so it’s not surprising that his shot is starting to come into it’s own, but it’s certainly comforting.
The Da’Monte Williams stat that always blows my mind is his usage rate. For some context, usage rate is what percentage of team plays a player is used in while he’s on the floor. So naturally, 20% is pretty average. One basketball, five guys to split it between, easy stuff. Last year Williams’ usage rate was 14.1%, lowest amongst rotation players. This year his usage rate was 9.6%. Nine. Point. Six. A usage rate below 10% is one of those stats that doesn’t even make sense. Aaron Jordan was the next lowest Illini in usage rate at 15%, Giorgi Bezhanishvili led the team at 25%.
There are a few other role players in the conference along with Williams who have pierced below the 10% usage rate threshold (which I will now be referring to as the Da’Monte line), and if you are below that line it basically means that you aren’t much of an offensive threat, and the defense probably doesn’t have to worry about you too much. That puts a lot of pressure on the other guys on the floor. The defense can sag off Williams to double team Giorgi, or make sure Trent can’t pop open for three, or to collapse on Ayo when he’s driving to the rim.
Impact on the Illini
He’s a starter and the definition of a glue guy. He plays hard defense, he makes very few mistakes and he does a lot of the dirty work and little things to set up the star players. This year Williams tried to play that role a little too well. So much so that he wouldn’t even look at the basket, and would immediately try to get the ball back to one of the playmakers.
It’s hard to tell from watching on TV if it’s a lack of confidence or just a genuine, unselfish desire to get the best offensive players the ball. Williams has an extremely high IQ and great feel for the game. He knows what good shots for himself and for the team look like and wants to make sure a possession results in one. He’s the kind of guy you want on your pick-up team. But for the Illini to be their best with Williams on the floor, he has to keep the defense honest and be more aggressive offensively, even if he’s not as efficient as he would like to be at this point in his career.
Williams ran into some foul trouble in certain games this season due to Underwood’s style, but his defense is still a huge positive for this team and a big reason why he started a majority of the year. Even though he’s only 6’3”, he has above-average strength and great length. His wingspan allows him to play up and guard smaller forwards in the Big Ten, which is something Dosunmu can’t quite do yet due to his strength and inexperience, and something Frazier and Feliz won’t ever be able to do consistently.
Da’Monte’s Best Game
Williams’ best game came in the second game of the season against the Georgetown Hoyas. Trent Frazier sat out of the game with a concussion and Williams saw increased playing time and played 29 minutes.
He had 11 points, two assists, four steals, a block and no turnovers on 3-of-4 shooting from the field (1-of-2 from three) and 4-of-5 from the line. Williams really showed everything the fans and coaches wanted to see from a player who was supposed to be making a sophomore leap. He played great defense, forced turnovers and turned them into offense. He got to the line well, which is a skill he showed during his freshman season, and he even knocked down a three.
The Illini came up short, but many Illini fans thought that we may be getting the breakout Da’Monte Williams season that we were promised all summer long.
The Quick and Dirty
The Illini still have that same roster gap at the wing position that we talked about all of last offseason. Nobody was rooting harder than me for Williams to step up and grab that spot, and announce his arrival as a major player and starter in Champaign for the next three years. While he did end the year as a starter, it wasn’t because of his accomplishments as much as it was about the incompetence of the competition.
Williams is still going to be an important rotation player for the Illini his next few seasons. He will play 15-20 minutes a game and probably play a lot of crunch time minutes simply because Brad Underwood trusts him as much as anyone on the entire team.
Unfortunately, Williams does not look like he is going to be the long-term answer at the starting wing spot like many of us had hoped. There is still certainly a chance that he explodes onto the scene next year, but the longer we have to wait for it, the less likely it is to happen.
Da’Monte Williams is the player every single coach wants to have on a winning team. Someone who isn’t concerned with getting their shots up, someone who makes the right play for his teammates, plays hard defense, rebounds and does the little things it takes to win. If Illinois takes a leap next year, and is an NCAA Tournament team, we are all going to be very happy to have a guy like Da’Monte Williams on that team. He’s a winning role player.
The frustrating part is that winning role players don’t seem to do you much good on a bad basketball team, and we saw that with Williams and the 2018-19 Illini.
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