Unranked and underappreciated, Eric Williams Jr. just wants to win
As Oregon men’s basketball team begins to right the ship, the Ducks’ sixth man and defensive conduit is helping keep them afloat.
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Eric Williams Jr. didn’t want to be known as the leading scorer on a team where success was sparse.
The numbers were historic, yet unsatisfactory. A spot in the record books, the accolades; it felt empty.
In his eyes, they didn’t prove a thing.
“I think winning games and being on a winning program means more,” the Oregon men’s basketball senior wing said. “I think that helps you moving forward.”
Williams Jr. broke out as a high school senior after transferring to New Haven — a 30-minute drive from his hometown of Port Huron, Mich. His scoring prowess, on display throughout New Haven’s run to the 2017 state championship, first brought him to Duquesne for college.
There he set a Duquesne single-game freshman record for points and rebounds, and led the team in both categories through his two-year stint in Pittsburgh. He hit a school-record nine threes in a game as a freshman and once scored 40 as a sophomore. He had arrived, clawing his way out of the under-the-radar Michigan hoops scene and turning into a full-blown Division I success.
But it was a lack of team success — a 35-29 record in two seasons at Duquesne and no NCAA Tournament appearances — that pushed the then-20-year-old west to Eugene, where he’s become a conduit for the Ducks’ mid-season surge in his second season with the team.
Williams Jr. just wants to win, and for this iteration of the Ducks, that means coming off the bench for the first time in his career.
Midway through his senior season at New Haven, Williams Jr. called his then-AAU coach Greg Boler.
Time was ticking.
The Division I offer he so desperately desired hadn’t come and Williams Jr. was ready to settle, ready to commit to Davis & Elkins, a small Division II school in West Virginia.
The Michigan basketball scene is under-recruited. Not for lack of talent, rather the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s archaic rules. Teams can’t travel more than 300 miles for games during the season, limiting access to tournaments and competitions. Nationally-televised games are out, too.
“[Their rules] should have been changed 20 years ago,” Wendell Green Sr., the director of Michigan Playmakers said. Williams Jr. played for the Detroit-based AAU program through high school.
The state has a single AAU shoe circuit team (private AAU leagues sponsored by shoe companies Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.) These teams receive money and gear from the companies on a yearly basis and often compete in national tournaments. Some states have three or four. The Family, out of Detroit, is Michigan’s sole program.
“That’s hurting kids in terms of image,” Green Sr. said. “A lot of our top kids have left and gone to prep schools and other top programs.”
Williams Jr. was never a part of The Family. He didn’t get the flashy shoes or gear either, and he missed the chance to showcase his talent at national tournaments. Parlay the lack of exposure with a 10-inch high school growth spurt and you can begin to understand why the records he set as a freshman at Duquesne came as such a surprise.
“There’s more kids that can be seen,” said Auburn point guard Wendell Green Jr., who played alongside Williams Jr. on the Michigan Playmakers. “There for sure is a lot of kids that come out of Michigan that are under-recruited, but a lot of kids can play.”
Williams Jr. collected a host of NAIA and Division II offers after ascending into one of the state’s premiere talents as a junior.
But Division II wasn’t the goal.
He averaged 20.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.5 steals per game as a senior and was named Prep Hoops Class B Player of the Year.
Surely a Division I school could’ve used that?
“A lack of stars by your name, sometimes these coaches aren't taking the chance,” Green Sr. said.
Boler’s message: “Don't let anybody force you,” he said. “If you feel like you can play at the Division I level, hold out. Bet on yourself.”
A week after the state championship, it came. Duquesne’s Keith Dambrot took the chance that many others wouldn’t.
Williams Jr. was going Division I.
After a string of lower body injuries in mid-December led to an uncharacteristic slump, Williams Jr. has found himself as Oregon’s sixth man; a career-low in minutes (27), points (8.5) and rebounds (4.9), the consequence.
It could be easy to chalk Williams Jr.’s decline in production for the Ducks this season up to regression, or an off year.
But look closer.
The Ducks (13-7, 6-3 Pac-12) are 8-2 since his move to the bench. Six of his nine double-digit scoring games have come on the road, where this Oregon team has garnered its best wins. He’s shooting 42 percent from 3-point range, best of his career.
“I just play my same game,” Williams Jr. said. “I’ve never really cared about coming off the bench or starting… It’s a team. We all win, or we all lose… I don’t go out there and worry about myself.”
He’ll often remain on the court in the team’s biggest moments. “Sixth starter” may be a better title for the forward.
“You get a guy coming off the bench that's as good as any one of your starters, can also go for 20 [points] and win a game for you, man, you're in a great place…,” assistant coach Mike Mennenga said. “Those cats are important on a winning team.”
Last season1 was the first in more than six years that Williams Jr. wasn’t his team’s leading scorer. He adapted. Now he’s become the Ducks’ defensive disruptor on the perimeter.
“When he's locked in and focused, there's probably not a better defender in the Pac-12,” Mennenga said.
That’s the scary part: Those close to the sixth man believe he has yet to unlock his athletic potential.
The 30-minute drive back and forth to New Haven high school. The hour-long slog to Detroit for AAU practices and games. The road trips to local tournaments.
It all added up.
By the time Williams Jr.'s mother, Clarice, gave the family's 2008 Chevy Impala to a friend, it had more than 300,000 miles on it.
“This was our life once Eric started playing basketball at the age of four,” Clarice said. “We missed so many weddings, so many activities. Our family vacations were traveling for AAU.”
There were countless NAIA and Division II school visits, too. They’d drive hours to see some, eventually touring half a dozen. Family and close friends questioned the decision. Everyone in Williams Jr.’s corner believed he could do better. Why spend time and money on visits to schools he’d never attend?
“I taught Eric to be humble,” Clarice said. “We want to go visit everybody.”
It took a sprinkle of that same humility for Williams Jr. to accept his role as sixth man in what very well could be his final season before attempting to venture into the pros. It wasn’t instantaneous. But remember, Williams Jr. just wants to win. And when the wins came, his fingerprints sprawled across each, he found himself at peace with his new role.
“I could see him on the bench,” Clarice said. “He was smiling. He was jumping. That’s the Eric I know.”
— Shane Hoffmann
Shane Hoffmann is a senior journalism student at the University of Oregon and a regular contributor to The I-5 Corridor. Follow him on Twitter at @shane_hoffmann.
Better yet: Hire him.
Williams Jr. averaged 10 points, 6 rebounds and 1.6 assists as a junior at Oregon. Chris Duarte led the Ducks with 17 points per game that year.