DURHAM, N.C. - Elliot Williams was five years old when he first gave basketball a try. He took to the sport like a duck takes to water. Fortunately for Duke fans, the Blue Devils’ freshman guard didn’t take to water like ... well, like that proverbial aquatic fowl.
“I’ve got a weird story,” Williams said. “When I was 5 years old, my Dad was trying to get me to play a sport. First, he took me swimming. I dove in the pool and almost drowned.”
That ended the youngster's swimming career.
“So Dad took me over to play basketball,” Williams said. “I had a weird, funky shot and I kept that until I was 15-16 years old. That’s how I started playing.”
Duke will benefit from that long-ago decision. The 6-foot-4, 180-pound prep All-American is likely to be a valuable player for the 2008-09 Blue Devils even as a freshman.
“He’s a guy who finds a way to get on the floor,” associate head coach Chris Collins said. “He’s a long athlete. He has the ability to be a terrific defender. He’s a slasher and a great open-court player. We believe he’ll be an elite player.”
Williams is the first outstanding player in his family. Neither his father Mexwayne, who manages a spice company, nor his mother Delois, who works at Fed-Ex, played basketball in college. And neither of his two older brothers or his older sister played competitively.
“One of my brothers tries to play basketball, but ...” Williams said, his voice trailing off.
Luckily, Williams grew up in the hoop-crazy city of Memphis, where he found good competition on the playgrounds and in the youth leagues. But it wasn’t until just before his sophomore season at St. George’s Independent School an academically oriented private school in the Memphis suburb of Colliersville that Williams blossomed into an exceptional player.
“I hit a growth spurt,” he said. “I was 6-1 in the ninth grade, going into the 10th grade, then I got up to 6-4. I was real, real skinny in the spring of junior year, I was about a buck sixty. I put on a little weight, I grew and my game started coming. I’ve always had good handling skills. When I grew to 6-4, I kept those skills, so that helped a lot being a taller guard.”
Playing for Coach Jeff Ruffin, Williams averaged 26.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists as a sophomore. That summer, playing for an AAU team sponsored by former Florida All-American Mike Miller and coached by Ernie Kuyper, Williams began to attract the attention of college recruiters.
“The first time I saw college coaches and got a big look was at the ABCD Camp,” he said. “That was the first time I was exposed to big-time recruitment. That’s when I started getting letters.”
The first letter came from Southern Illinois. A lot more were to follow.
“My junior year, that’s when it was crazy,” Williams said.
It didn’t hurt that the slender guard repeated his sophomore heroics as a junior at St. George’s earning all-state honors as he averaged 25.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists while leading his team to a 24-6 record and a spot in the state title game.
By the spring of 2007, when Williams appeared with his AAU team in the Bob Gibbons Tournament in the Triangle, he was being courted by too many schools to count.
“I had a lot of schools I was interested in,” Williams said. “I wanted to keep it open. I had lot of schools looking at me.”
He brought the recruiting insanity under control when he cut his list to six schools: Duke, Memphis, Virginia, Clemson, Tennessee and Texas. Early in September, he dropped Clemson and Texas, cutting the list to four.
But the really tough choice was whether to stay close to home or go away to school.
“I was born in Memphis and lived there my whole life,” he said. “There was a lot of pressure [to stay at home]. That’s my hometown ... and my state school, Tennessee. I loved Virginia. I loved Duke. I had a tough decision.”
On Halloween Day, 2007, Williams made his choice to play for the Blue Devils.
“It was a lot of things my comfort level when I went on my visit; Coach K and the whole coaching staff; the team and the way they welcomed me; and academically it’s a great school. It was a winning situation for me.”
Williams worried a little bit about the reception he would received from his friends at school and in Memphis. Surprisingly, he had no problems.
“They were happy for me -- it’s everybody’s dream to go to Duke,” he said. “When I got back to school, there were a lot of people back in Memphis that wanted me to go to the Tigers. They were a little disappointed ... more disappointment, not mad at me.”
His college choice out of the way, Williams enjoyed a spectacular senior season at St. George’s. He averaged 24.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 7.1 assists for a 24-3 team. He repeated as an all-state selection and was voted Tennessee’s 2008 Division II Mr. Basketball. Nationally, Williams was elected a McDonald’s All-America and a second-team Parade All-American. He scored 10 points and added two rebounds and an assist for the East All-Stars in the McDonald’s Game.
And, along the way, he compiled a 3.7 GPA at St. George’s.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski suggested that Williams’ high school experience might ease his transition to college life.
“The school he went to is really a good prep for Duke,” Krzyzewski said last summer. “Plus, he’s very mature. So I don’t think he’ll have an adjustment people-wise or school-wise. I think he’s got a chance to help right away.”
That’s what Williams hopes to do.
“I just want to bring a lot to the team, be exciting to watch ... and win. That’s the main thing win,” he said. “I think I’m very athletic. I create off my driving ability. I bring a lot of energy and play defense very well. I hope to get my three-point shot more consistent and gain a little weight ... that’s where I want to get at.”
The weight issue is no longer the problem it one was. The wafer-thin player who played in Cameron during the Gibbons’ tournament at the end of his junior year has added 20 pounds of muscle and would now be better described as slender, not skinny.
He’s also changed that “funky shot” that he first adopted as a five-year-old.
“I just knew I had to change it,” Williams said. “It was kind of flat. I was pushing it up. I had to get more elevation on it. I knew I had to change it to get more consistent. It was very tough. I went through a rough [transition] period right before my sophomore year. It was a little awkward, but I got through it.”
“It’s fun ... Miles likes it a little cold, but we got over that,” he said. “Olek and Miles are funny.”
Williams said his favorite non-basketball pastimes are movies, listening to music and reading. Plus, like former Duke star Jason Williams, he sometimes plays chess. And, when it comes to video games, the freshman guard is ready to challenge junior Jon Scheyer as the team’s champion.
“Some games I’m better than him, some games he’s got me,” Williams said, acknowledging, “Jon is the man with video games.”
Williams spent much of the summer in Durham, getting an early start on his academics and polishing his game in a summer league at North Carolina Central that featured a variety of college and even NBA veterans.
“I was actually on a team with a lot of N.C. State players, playing against Nolan [Smith], Kyle [Singler], Olek and Miles,” he said. “It was fun, just playing with a lot of pro guys. The gym got more and more crowded, so it was like the community was getting excited to see us.”
One attraction, Williams acknowledged, was Czyz and his impressive dunks.
“Olek that’s what he does, he’s a high flyer.”
But those who have seen Williams perform have seen him generate some pretty spectacular dunks too. It’s interesting that when the new Blue Devil guard joined his teammates to watch Coach K guide the U.S. Olympic basketball team to the gold medal in Beijing, he focused on one player.
“I don’t want to say I’m as good as him, but I kind of looked at Dwayne Wade and how he came in and played,” Williams said. “I could see [Coach K] used a lot of the Duke system in the Olympics. I just looked at a lot of the perimeter players and tried to see myself in that role.”
The Blue Devils can thank their lucky stars that Williams was visualizing himself in the role of a Dwayne Wade and not watching Michael Phelps in Beijing and projecting himself into the Olympic pool.
If he were a better swimmer, Duke might have missed out on a gifted guard.