FULLERTON, Calif. — The first time he watched incoming freshman Robert Williams this summer, Texas A&M guard Admon Gilder thought his eyes were deceiving him.
The 6-foot-9 forward possessed physical tools no other player on the Aggies roster could come close to matching.
“Robert can jump out of the gym,” Gilder said. “He has almost a 44-inch vertical. When he first came in, it was surprising to see that. I’d never seen somebody in this program who could jump so well.”
The rest of college basketball is now getting a glimpse of what Gilder and his teammates already know. Williams is a genetic marvel with the wingspan, timing, foot speed and quick-twitch leaping ability to intrigue NBA scouts and to impact a game at both ends of the floor.
Many of Williams’ attributes were on display on Friday evening in Texas A&M’s 68-65 comeback victory over Virginia Tech in the semifinals of the Wooden Legacy Tournament. Williams came off the bench to score 13 points, grab nine rebounds and make some game-altering key plays that sparked an Aggies’ rally from a 16-point second-half deficit.
He altered shots with his length and helped force Virginia Tech to become jump shot-reliant. He yanked down rebounds players with shorter arms or less bounce would have just let go. He also energized his team with a series of acrobatic steals, high-effort put-backs and soaring alley-oops.
Williams’ best sequence began with Texas A&M trailing by four late in the second half when he stole an entry pass intended for Virginia Tech’s Zach LeDay and started a fast break that resulted in a layup by Gilder. On Texas A&M’s next possession, Williams gobbled up a missed 3-pointer by J.C. Hampton and tied the game with a put-back.
In the 21 minutes Williams played, Texas A&M outscored Virginia Tech by 17 points. In the 19 minutes he sat out, the Hokies outscored the Aggies by 14.
“I think he’s their best prospect,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said. “That’s what we told our team. Obviously I haven’t studied him all year long, but in the quick turnaround I’m very impressed. Great skill level. Elite athlete for his size. Game changer at both ends of the floor. That’s not to take away from 34 (Tyler Davis) or 1 (D.J. Hogg), but 44 is talented.”
Williams’ productivity in limited minutes begs an obvious question: How much longer can Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy afford to bring him off the bench? This is a kid whose early-season play has NBA scouts buzzing, yet he’s still logging only 18 minutes per game and coming off the bench behind junior Tonny Trocha-Morelos.
When a reporter asked Kennedy after Friday’s game whether it was getting tougher to keep Williams off the floor, the freshman forward was seated next to his coach on the podium and couldn’t contain a big grin. Kennedy then went out of his way to praise Trocha-Morelos and senior forward Tavario Miller in his response, perhaps a sign he’s mindful of the older players’ focus straying if Williams continues to carve into their playing time.
“We’d like to figure out a way to have all our big guys on the court when we get some time in practice,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got a good team. We’ve got depth. Tony’s a really good player. Tavario Miller came in during the second half and got a big jump hook for us. We’ve got a lot of good players, and obviously Robert is a weapon for us defensively and offensively.”
It’s going to get harder and harder for Kennedy to douse the hype surrounding Williams or keep him off the floor if he continues to play like he did Friday night.
Maybe the premier prospect in the state of Louisiana last year, Williams passed on offers from the likes of LSU, Baylor and NC State to sign with Texas A&M. Most recruiting services did not rate him among the top 50 players in the 2016 class, yet he’s slowly playing his way into position to be a potential first-round pick in the next year or two.
Asked whether he expected to have made such a big impact so quickly, Williams admitted it has been a pleasant surprise.
“I’m just trying to impact each game best as I can — rebounds, blocked shots, whatever coach needs me to do,” he said.
On Friday, he did all of those things, cementing himself as a prospect to watch in NBA circles and making a very strong case for more playing time in the immediate future.
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