Bill Hass on the ACC: Deacons Count on L.D. Williams For Defense, Dunks and Emotion
Jan. 8, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - When fans and media discuss the many marquee players in Sunday night's North Carolina-Wake Forest game, the name of L.D. Williams probably isn't among the first to come up.
When you're 13-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country, certain players are going to grab headlines. For Wake, those have primarily been Jeff Teague as the scoring leader and James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu as scorers and rebounders. In addition, Chas McFarland can be a force in the post and Ish Smith, rounding into shape after a preseason injury, is crucial to the floor game.
Williams' role is less flashy - a defensive stopper first and a supplemental scorer second. But a case can be made that he is the Deacons' most indispensable player, and the relative lack of fame doesn't bother him.
"Everybody has a special piece to the puzzle on our team," he said. "My role is to stop the other guys' best scorer."
His teammates are acutely aware of Williams' value.
"Everybody wants to be a star but everybody can't be a star and everybody has a role on the team," Smith said. "His role is to knock down open threes and to guard the best offensive player on the opposite team. He does a great job of that."
And no one appreciates Williams more than his coach, Dino Gaudio.
"He means just a tremendous amount to this basketball team," Gaudio said. "He is a hard worker with high energy and a terrific defensive player. He's a great teammate, he leads by example, he practices hard, he plays hard, he buys into our philosophy defensively as well as offensively, and he has really accepted his role.
"He knows and those kids know he's going to cover the toughest perimeter guy on the other team. And he does a marvelous job of that. As coach, that's really comforting to know that you have that luxury."
Gaudio said being a good defender "was in his DNA" when Williams came to Wake three years ago. He started all 31 games his freshman season under the late Skip Prosser. A big test that season came against Virginia, when point guard Sean Singletary had burned the Deacons for 18 or 20 points in the first half, as Gaudio recalled. Williams defended Singletary in the second half and held him to two baskets.
Williams never planned to be such a good defender, he said. In two years at Forbush High School, he was a big scorer. Feeling he needed more national exposure, he spent his junior and senior seasons at Montverde Academy in Orlando.
Coach Kevin Sutton ran his practices much like a college team and played a national schedule. Williams' roommate was Luc Mbah a Moute, who went to UCLA and now is a starter for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. In that environment, Williams' game blossomed.
"The thing I took the most from (Sutton) is nothing comes easy, you've got to work for everything," Williams said. "He used to tell us `to whom much is given, much is expected.' Whenever you go on the court you've got to play hard and leave it on the court because you never know when it's your last game. You never know when the ball stops bouncing."
Williams also played on the AAU circuit and his versatile defensive skills were honed by the experience of guarding the likes of future North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson, future national player of the year Kevin Durant (now in the NBA), point guard Nic Wise (Arizona) and forward Micah Downs (Gonzaga).
"I've always been longer and athletic enough to guard different kinds of guys," said Williams, who is listed at 6-4 but says he's closer to 6-5. "In AAU I guarded ... a lot of different guys who played a variety of different positions. On the AAU circuit is where I kind of got a defensive mind, knowing I'm going to guard a tough guy every game."
That has carried over into college. Gaudio said Williams is capable of guarding a point guard, shooting guard or small forward. At times, because "he will fight you inside," Gaudio has asked Williams to guard a power forward.
That versatility is not lost on his teammates.
"When you see L.D. working hard, you don't want him to out-work you," Smith said. "He gets everybody going. He has nice size on him where he can guard a four and he has quickness and speed to guard the one and the two."
Williams enjoys the variety and accepts all challenges. Sunday night he will, at various times, probably guard Tar Heel perimeter players Wayne Ellington and Danny Green and backcourt player Marcus Ginyard. He has, in the past, taken a turn on post player Tyler Hansbrough.
"It's a mindset you have to have," Williams said. "You can't just settle in to being able to guard all guards or all forwards. My teammates rely on me to guard anybody the coaches assign me to and a lot of it is my teammates having confidence in me to guard those guys.
"Those (opposing players) have got to worry about me pestering them on defense. It's a thing I pride myself on. The guys in the scouting report know that I'm coming in to heat them up, I'm coming in to stop them from scoring. It makes the competition a little bit better. Guys are going to up the ante on offense and it's going to make me compete harder on defense."
Although Williams' main contributions are on defense, it would be a mistake to forget his offense. He's averaging 9.2 points, but has scored in double figures in seven of the last eight games, averaging 12.1 in that span. Although his 3-point shooting is off this season (5-of-23 for 21.7 percent), he has gotten better at attacking the basket and finishing strong.
"I've got to be able to help out on offense," Williams said. "Not as much as I do on defense, but I've got to be able to be accountable for some points. If I'm just out there just to play defense, I'm really not helping us out. I know I'm not going to ever lead the team in scoring, but the buckets that I get are important buckets. My getting to the free throw line and finishing around the rim, that's going to help my team as much as snuffing out a guy on defense."
The one flashy part of Williams' game is his dunk shots. He won a dunk contest at a high school all-star game in Florida with a couple of spectacular efforts. On one, he placed a rack of basketballs at the foul line and soared over them on his way to the rim. On another, he stood a local DJ near the basket, then leaped over him to slam the ball through.
At Wake, his backboard-rattlers never fail to get his teammates excited. "Usually, that dunk leads to another steal and layup and it's kind of like an avalanche," Smith said. "After that dunk, it keeps rolling and snowballing and gets bigger and bigger. All of a sudden you look back at the score and we're up 12 now. I think it gets the crowd rocking, too, and when we're on the road it quiets the crowd down. It really does get us going."
Williams is unquestionably the Deacons' emotional leader, Smith said, the player who will pound his chest and yell "we need a stop" at a crucial juncture. That's an acquired role for Williams, who said he was a quiet player early in his high school days until coaches urged him to become more vocal.
"My teammates are used to me being the guy talking in the huddle," he said, "the guy who will come up to them and tell them what they need to do, or they did a good job, sometimes even curse them a little bit. But they know to pay attention to what I say, not how I say it."
Despite Wake's gaudy ranking and the national attention garnered by the upcoming game against third-ranked North Carolina, Williams believes success hasn't gone to the Deacons' heads. Of course, he said, it's hard not to peek at the national rankings or talk about it in their dorm rooms.
"It's tough for a bunch of guys who have never accomplished anything - and we still haven't accomplished anything," he said. "We've still got a lot to prove to everybody, a lot to prove. We've got a target on our back. We went from the hunter to the hunted, so every game is going to be a fight."
Win or lose in this game, Williams believes this is going to be a special season for Wake Forest.
"Everything is better when you're winning," he said. "We've got guys who love to have fun and love to be in the gym, and with that kind of chemistry we just play off of each other and it carries over to the court."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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