Winning plays from role players don’t mean much on losing teams. The “little things” look even smaller, and less important.
Da’Monte Williams’ value and impact to the program was muddied and incredibly unclear during his first few years in Champaign. He wasn’t a shooter, or much of a playmaker, or a big-bodied rebounder. His box score was a bit of a wasteland.
But his effort was there. His basketball instincts are off the charts — I wonder where he got those from. And his length and defensive versatility are difficult to quantify.
While many fans were frustrated with Williams’ lack of offensive aggressiveness early in the season and inability to score for long stretches, Underwood stuck by him and he became a mainstay in the starting lineup over Alan Griffin and Tevian Jones.
Williams was the perfect role player to play off stars like Dosunmu and Cockburn. Someone who doesn’t need the ball in his hands and someone who doesn’t need “X” number of shots per game.
When the season started to turn around, you could see how those winning plays contributed to the extremely small margin between winning and losing those one or two possession games. You need the guy you can count on late, the guy who won’t make a mistake, the guy who will make the right play — Da’Monte Williams is that guy.
By The Numbers
There’s not many of them, and that’s why Williams’ game is so confounding and fun to watch. Minimalism is beautiful.
He averaged 2.8 points (a career low), 3.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.4 blocks per game while starting and playing 21 minutes per game.
Williams has never been a shooter and his percentages reflected that this year. He shot 35% from the field and 28% from three. He has a really pretty shot and shoots it with confidence, but he opened conference play with 14 straight misses from three through the first 11 games. Amidst that stretch, Williams went the entire month of January without scoring a point. Eight games and no points. It’s truly remarkable.
However, his shooting picked up over the last nine games. Williams shot 9-of-17 from three over that span and had four games where he hit multiple threes. If that can provide a confidence boost heading into next year, that could provide this offense a huge lift as it is still desperately searching for shooting from the wing.
My favorite stat to track over the course of his Illini career has been his usage rate. This season his USG% was 8.3%. Which is simply staggering. It has decreased every year from 14.3% to 9.6% to 8.3%.
There’s five players on the court at all times, so these rates typically range from 15-25%, and even higher for your superstars. Dosunmu led the Illini in usage at 26% this year. So to be below 10% is bewildering. And while you don’t want your role players to try and do too much, it will help the Illini if Williams can become a bit more aggressive on the offensive end.
Impact on the Illini
Williams is Illinois’ best defender. He stands at only 6-foot-3, but his long wingspan allows him to guard forwards and guards in the Big Ten.
He locked down the much bigger Lamar Stevens in the upset on the road at Penn State. He has the speed to stick with smaller guys and the strength and length to play the bigger ones. He often took on the toughest wing scorer on the opposing team.
Not only was this important to solidify a much maligned defense from a year ago, but it allowed Ayo Dosunmu to take a weaker matchup on the defensive end so he could expend more energy carrying the Illini on offense.
Later in the year, Da’Monte Williams even started some games at power forward. With Giorgi struggling and the offense needing a jolt, Underwood returned to his three guard lineup with Feliz, Frazier and Dosunmu. And even with that lack of size he stuck with Williams because he believed he was still his best defensive option, regardless of position.
Every winning team needs defensive stalwarts and winning role players. These are guys that have completely bought into their role and the system. These are the kind of guys you want to have in your program to set an example for the underclassmen. And that’s exactly why Underwood loves having Da’Monte Williams out on the floor.
Da’Monte’s Best Game
I mentioned that Williams’ offense started to pick up later in the year. But that’s not the most important part of his game, that’s not where his real value lies.
The defining moment of Williams’ season and Illini career thus far was the Minnesota game.
This was really the moment where Da’Monte Williams clicked for a lot of Illini fans. And we could actually visualize why Underwood kept giving him all of these minutes and kept starting him.
In Williams’ best game of the season he did not score a single point. Perfectly Da’Monte Williams. Instead he pulled down seven rebounds before sealing the game on the defensive end.
Ayo Dosunmu had become the offensive closer on this conference winning streak, but it was Williams’ turn to close things out on the defensive end. With 1:15 to play the Illini were up 54-51. Marcus Carr misses a shot for Minnesota and Daniel Oturu gathers the offensive board, and as he’s preparing to go back up with it, Williams swoops in and swipes the ball away.
But he wasn’t done.
Ayo would split a pair of free throws, and with 40 seconds to play Da’Monte would block a three-point attempt by Minnesota to seal it. Illinois would recover the ball and hit its free throws.
Da’Monte Williams has made blocking three point jumpers look easy of late. The combination of length and instinct displayed on that play alone shows you why he’s such a valuable defensive weapon.
The Quick and Dirty
Da’Monte Williams is what he is.
He’s not his dad. He’s not ever going to be a dynamic offensive playmaker. He’s never going to be a dead-eye three point shooter. he may not “WOW” you in the traditional sense we’ve come to expect from basketball superstars.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not extremely important to Illinois Basketball. He is the walking embodiment of every single coach-speak cliche in the book. And if you love basketball like I do, then those become some of the most fun guys to watch out there.
Williams’ name won’t be in the record books, his jersey won’t hang in the rafters. But if Illinois makes some noise next year and the 2021 Illini are a team people reference for years and years to come, then senior Da’Monte Williams’ fingerprints will be all over it.