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Tennessee’s Grant Williams is a college basketball mega-star, but he’s still a big ‘teddy bear’

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March Madness is back. Here are just some of the notable upsets that have happened in the NCAA Tournament.
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March Madness is back. Here are just some of the notable upsets that have happened in the NCAA Tournament.

Back in January, Grant Williams’ high school basketball coach went to watch the Tennessee star and national player of the year candidate play a home game against West Virginia.

Providence Day’s Brian Field called his former standout the night before the game and asked if Williams might grab a poster or a picture to sign for his kids.

“Coach,” Williams texted right back, “I’m going to go to the bookstore right now.”

Sure enough, Williams caused a bit of a ruckus when he went in and bought the last replica No. 2 jersey in the place.

“So we walk in the next day,” Field said, “and ask if they had an orange shirt, preferably with No. 2 or Williams on it. The (cashier) said (the store) sold out in October. Then an assistant said they had one little kid’s jersey left with Grant’s number on it, but Grant had come in and bought it. I said, ‘Yes, he came in to get it for my son.’ ”

The store employees noticed Field’s Providence Day apparel and put 2-and-2 together.

Everybody, the employees said, loves Grant Williams in Knoxville.

Before Williams got there, he was an unheralded recruit whose name few knew.

Friday afternoon at 2:45, Tennessee will play Colgate in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Volunteers could certainly win a title, and now, nearly everybody who follows the game knows who their best player is.

From unknown recruit to national star

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In the 2015-16 season, Providence Day began the season No. 1 in the Sweet 16 with five Division I recruits. The Chargers ended it with a state title while playing one of the toughest schedules in Mecklenburg County history. Providence Day’s boys’ basketball starters - sophomore guard Trey Wertz (3), 6-6 senior forward Joshua Howard (42), 6-8 senior forward Isaac Johnson (22), 6-7 senior center Grant Williams (2) and sophomore guard Devon Dotson (1). David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

At Providence Day, Williams became one of four high school players to ever be named The Charlotte Observer’s All-Observer player of the year in back-to-back seasons.

In 2016, he led the Chargers to a state championship over a High Point Christian team led by future NBA lottery pick Bam Adebayo, now with the Miami Heat.

Providence Day finished ranked No. 16 in USA Today’s national poll and played in Dicks’ Sporting Goods’ high school national championship in New York.

But Williams wasn’t a top-100 recruit and chose Tennessee over Yale. Most scouts were never sure if he was big enough, at 6-foot-7, or fast enough, to play power forward at the highest levels of college basketball.

“I have a lot of faith in myself,” Williams said after Tennessee beat South Carolina in Columbia in January. “I knew what I could do, and (Tennessee) coach (Rick) Barnes instilled more faith in me than I knew before. I was never the most athletic talent. I was never the quickest, but it was always about the time in the gym.

“But I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder. No matter where I’m at, people will always doubt me, and that kind of gives me some inspiration.”

He quickly proved that Barnes and his staff were right about his potential as a freshman. Williams scored 402 points that season, sixth in school history among freshmen.

As a sophomore, Williams averaged 15.2 points, six rebounds and was named SEC player of the year. He was the second Tennessee player to win the award as a underclassman, following New York Knicks legend Bernard King.

And this season, Williams led Tennessee to its first No. 1 national ranking in 11 years and became the first repeat SEC player of the year since 1995. In fact, only 10 players from the conference have done that, including King, Shaquille O’Neal and Pete Maravich.

Williams’ teammate and best friend, Admiral Schofield, said he saw all this coming.

“I really did,” Schofield said. “As a freshman, he had a 30-point game and I had never seen that; how easy it was for him and it’s even easier now. He’s about 6-7, 6-8 and he’s able to play against 7-footers and get hook shots off. He’s down there playing like Charles Barkley. It’s amazing to watch.”

Jay Bilas saw it early

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Providence Day’s Grant Williams smiles before being recognized during senior night at a boys prep basketball game Friday, January 5, 2016 at Providence Day. Photo by JASON E. MICZEK - Special to the Observer JASON E. MICZEK WWW.MICZEKPHOTO.COM

Five years ago, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas coached Williams on an AAU team with his son, Anthony, who now plays at Wake Forest.

“I knew he was going to be a really good player,” Bilas said. “I wasn’t out there thinking he’d be a first-team All-American and SEC player of the year, but he was one of the youngest players on the team, if not the youngest by a fair margin. I remember I had to call timeout and say, ‘You realize he scores every time he touches it. We may need to get the ball to him some.’ ”

Bilas marvels at the player Williams has become. Along with Duke’s Zion Williamson, Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura and Murray State’s Ja Morant, Williams is a finalist for national player of the year.

His 43 points against Vanderbilt in January were the most by any Tennessee player in 19 years.

“He’s one of the top four guys, no question,” Bilas said. “People think it can be difficult to be a role player because you’re sacrificing for the team, but what’s really difficult is to be the star. If the role players don’t play well, Tennessee still wins. If Grant doesn’t play well, Tennessee loses.”

The NBA question

Williams, a junior, can come back to Tennessee next season. He is graduating in May. A recent CBS Sports mock NBA draft had Williams going in the first round. Other mock drafts have had him as a middle to late, second-round pick.

Bilas said, if he stays healthy, Williams has a “10- to 12-year” NBA career in front of him.

Williams said he is keeping his options open.

“As a kid,” he said, “you always dream of (the NBA), but for me, it’s always about the team. I told coach Barnes I was going to hang him a (national championship) banner and that’s my goal and my sole focus. It’s not like the NBA will destroy itself in the next three years.

“There’s a chance I could come back. I’m graduating early in May which is great for me. I put myself in a great position, but my focus is on the team and doing what’s best for Admiral and Kyle (Alexander), all our seniors, the guys I’ve grown up with, guys that been around since the beginning.”

Still the same ol’ Grant

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Special to the Observer

As he walked into the game at West Virginia, Field, Williams’ high school coach, noticed a near long line to his right. More than 50 fans were lined up to take a photo with a near-lifesize cardboard cutout of Williams.

“It’s just a feeling of joy,” Field said. “Here’s a really remarkable young man, a special kid. I’d be lying if I said I knew he would be this good. But one thing I knew from the beginning was don’t bet against him. But to get where he’s gotten to in a couple of years is just unbelievable.”

After games, Williams always signs autographs and takes pictures with fans. In November, he and teammate John Fulkerson stopped to help a Vols fan change her tire after she got a flat en route to a game.

“Grant’s amazing, man,” Tennessee point guard Jordan Bone said. “He’s a great guy on and off the court. He’s a leader. It’s amazing having him as the leader on your team.”

The thing that Field appreciates most is superstar Grant is still change-the-tire Grant.

“He’s a fierce competitor,” Field said, “but he is a giant teddy bear. That’s how I always described him. He’s a goofball. And he’s still the exact same Grant. He hasn’t turned into a guy who thinks he’s big time. He’s the same ol’ guy from Charlotte who’s always got a smile on his face, always clowning around and having fun and he will talk with anyone who wants to talk with him.

“Despite all of his success, he’s remained true to the person he is.”

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