COLUMBIA — Initially, Johnathan Williams III was reluctant.
A teacher from Lowrance Elementary School had emailed Jewell Gates, an assistant basketball coach at Southwind High School in Memphis, asking whether Williams could be the honorary speaker at his former school’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony.
Quiet and uncomfortable talking about himself, the high school athlete didn’t know whether he could will himself to speak to the crowd of roughly 400 people.
“If you didn’t know that he was a great basketball player, you’d never know that from listening to him talk, because he doesn’t talk about it,” Gates said. “He doesn’t talk about his accolades he’s gotten in high school; he doesn’t talk about the things he’s doing at Missouri.
“Once I told him the nature of this, that normally, it’s something high school kids aren’t asked to do, and this is something you should do because of the magnitude of who you are and how much the younger kids around the community look up to you; he was like, ‘Coach, I’ll do this, but I don’t know what to say.’”
“You’ll come up with something,” Gates assured Williams.
Williams addressed the graduates for roughly 15 minutes, emphasizing the importance of hard work, that no matter how dark the circumstances, goals could be achieved, through hard work.
“He didn’t talk about basketball,” Gates recalled. “Not one time.”
Scoring, not rebounding, was Williams’ forte in high school.
Gates doesn’t think Williams, an 18.9-point-per-game scorer in high school, ever snagged more than 15 rebounds in a game.
“Maybe 14 or 15 once,” Gates said. “He was consistently getting nine, 10 or 11.”
Now, Williams leads Missouri, averaging 8.4 rebounds per game. The lanky, 6-foot-9, 208-pound freshman hauled in 15 rebounds Dec. 7 against UCLA, which was two below his season high of 17 against Gardner-Webb earlier in the season.
“I’ve watched him a couple times on TV, and he’s gone and gotten rebounds outside of his area,” Gates said. “Sometimes in high school, he didn’t do that. He’d get the ones he was supposed to get, but didn’t get the ones that he had to make an effort to go get.
“Now, he’s going and getting every rebound that he possibly can, and that shows the maturation of him.”
Williams' new calling card has amazed teammates.
“It’s real impressive. I haven’t seen anybody attack the offensive boards like he does, Jordan Clarkson said. “That dude’s just an animal; he’s a machine going in there. He does everything that coach asks us. We say something, and he’ll jump through a wall for you, so he’s doing great.”
“He makes things happen. I’ve never seen a guy get his hands on so many balls,” Jabari Brown said. “I definitely feel like he’s playing well and playing within himself and he’s a big part of our team.”
For Missouri men’s basketball coach Frank Haith, former Tiger Kim English has been the embodiment of personal sacrifice and “buying in” to a coach’s plan.
English, an outside shooter, was forced to play the power forward position his senior season in 2011-12 due to injuries. Though vastly undersized for the position at 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, English bought into Haith’s plan. A 30-win season later, his personal sacrifice was worth it.
“When you see guys who give into what they think their role is for the betterment of the team, that is a team,” Haith said. “They’re not playing golf or tennis; they’re playing a team sport. Our goal is to get them to understand what helps us win and to get them to buy into it.
“Some guys may not buy in; some don’t. Some fight you. But I think we’ve got a good group of guys, and they deserve credit for understanding and buying into what we’re trying to do so far.“
The first current Tiger commended by Haith? Williams.
Gone are the days of nearly 20 points per game for Williams. Gone are the days when Southwind needed those 20 points from Williams to win. Now, a perimeter-oriented team, Missouri needs Williams to rebound.
“Although he can get better (offensively), that doesn’t mean his role will not get to that level, because I think he will eventually be a scorer at that range,” Haith said. “But I think on this team, right now for us to win, he needs to give us some other things, and I think he’s doing that.
“We want to throw the ball to him; we want to get him in different areas on the court. He has good quickness, he has a good face-up game, he can attack you off the bounce, and I think he has a good post-up game. He will be a guy as you will see us featuring and getting more involved with what we do offensively.”
Clarkson believes it’s just a matter of time until Williams, averaging 6.5 points per game, scores more, and more consistently.
“J3 (Williams III) is always working on his game. He might be in the gym more than some of the guys who work here,” Clarkson said. “He’s always working. You’re going to see his offensive game come alive."
A half-hour and approximately 200 extra shot attempts after practice ended Wednesday afternoon, Williams finished.
The extra shots are a part of a daily routine for Williams, who used to hound Southwind High's night janitor to let him use the school’s gymnasium at night to take extra shots.
Eventually, Williams knows, his teammates will need him to score. So, he prepares.
Williams said his role "is still growing."I’m still trying to work myself into the offense. Right now, I’m just getting my points off rebounds, just trying to help my team win.
“My role’s going to continue to grow as the season continues, as far as the offensive side, but for right now it’s just rebounds.”
And that’s just fine for Williams, as long as the team keeps winning.
“It was just amazing for me, to get out there and get the rebounds and score 10 points,” Williams said of his performance against UCLA. “But most importantly, I’m happy we got the win.
“Ten points and 15 rebounds, that doesn’t mean anything if we don’t win.”