Tom Satkowiak, Tennessee’s assistant athletics director for communications, was momentarily at a loss for words when asked for his thoughts on Grant Williams, one of the program’s three players selected in the 2019 NBA Draft Thursday night.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” Satkowiak told Boston.com.
There’s a lot to like about Williams.
“The first thing that stands out about him is his smile,” said Providence Day School’s Brian Field, who coached him in high school. “He has the ability to just light up any room he walks into with his smile and personality. He’s always in a good mood.”
The 6-foot-7 forward, picked 22nd overall by the Celtics, is a two-time SEC Player of the Year. He’s earned first-team All-American honors, as well as first-team all-conference honors, twice. During his final season at Tennessee, he — joined only by Duke’s Zion Williamson and Murray State’s Ja Morant — was a finalist for the John R. Wooden Award, the Oscar Robertson Trophy, and the Citizen Naismith Trophy.
On the court, Williams is a versatile, albeit undersized, big able to make an impact on both ends. He boasts efficiency in the post, a soft touch around the basket, and a penchant for baseline spin moves. He isn’t afraid to initiate contact to get to the line — as a junior, Williams led the SEC in points (18.8) and free throws (7.3) per game — nor is he hesitant to kick the ball out to a teammate.
He’s strong, he’s selfless, and he’s smart.
In the words of Field: “There are a lot of different ways Grant can beat you.”
How Williams’s game will translate to the NBA, however, seems to be a matter of debate. Can he master a long-range shot? How will bigger defenders affect his ability to generate offense out of the post? Will his perimeter defense be exposed?
The answers to those questions will come with time.
But one thing’s for certain: Williams is going to put in the work.
“He knows he has to get better,” Tennessee men’s basketball head coach Rick Barnes told Boston.com. “He’s not coming in there thinking that he’s this or he’s that. He knows he has to get better. He also knows getting there is one thing and staying there is another.”
There’s reason for Barnes, who coached Williams throughout his tenure as a Volunteer, to be confident in his former player. Williams was doubted — perhaps even more so — when he arrived at Tennessee.
A chubby, unheralded three-star prospect from North Carolina, Williams wasn’t heavily recruited coming out of high school. His final college decision was between the Ivy League — Harvard, Yale, or Princeton — and Tennessee. His weight held him back, according to multiple coaches.
After working with Tennessee’s strength and conditioning coach Garrett Medenwald, Williams gradually transformed himself physically. He made what he calls a “lifestyle change” — one that includes limiting consumption of his favorite snack, popcorn.
“I could eat like three or four bags a night,” Williams said.
Barnes remembers well when Williams once received a care package shortly after Medenwald had finished a talk about nutrition. Inside the box, which they opened together, were 50 bags of “extra buttery” Orville Redenbacher popcorn.
“It was individualized packets, so that means there was a lot of it,” recalled Williams.
“I told him, ‘You’ll never taste one kernel of this popcorn,’” Barnes said. “He’d be on the treadmill, and I’d go pop a bag of that popcorn.”
For Williams, his new physique allowed for better conditioning and movement but remains a continual work in progress.
“I always love to improve,” he said. “I haven’t really understood my body as well as I can. I hope to find a weight that I’m great at, that I really feel the best at, and that I play the best at because every single year, I’ve improved. Every single year, I’ve gone down in body weight.”
But no matter the strides his body makes, Williams’s intelligence will likely remain his most impressive feature. The 20-year-old graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in supply chain management from Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business in three years. Had he returned for his senior season, he would have finished with a Master’s degree as well.
“If there’s anybody in this draft that’s smarter than Grant Williams, they’re brilliant,” Barnes said.
The first words coach Brad Stevens used on draft night to describe Williams were “super smart,” praising him for his “point guard mind.” Williams, Field, and Barnes all tapped basketball IQ as his biggest strength.
“In school, I love to read ahead,” Williams said. “I love to understand the concept really well, whether that’s listening to someone talk about it or researching it myself. That’s how I take in everything in life, whether it’s on or off the court.”
Perhaps most importantly, he spreads the wealth.
“He’s out on the floor telling them, ‘This guy’s this and that guy’s that,” Barnes said. “Lamonte Turner said on the free-throw line, Grant would say, ‘Hey, you got to box out. This guy is a 62-percent free-throw shooter.’ It wasn’t even who he was guarding. He knew all that. He really studied the game. He took game preparation seriously.”
So, what else can Celtics fan expect from Williams?
“People are going to fall in love with him,” Barnes said. “He’s going to be out amongst people. What he did on this campus far exceeded what he did for basketball. I don’t care what kind of event we had going on, you name it, Grant Williams was there. Everybody in the student body loved him.”
During the pre-draft process, Field said an NBA team asked where Williams would likely be sitting if they walked into the dining hall. The truth, according to Field, is that it depended on the day. Some days, Williams would be with his basketball teammates; some days, he’d be with his castmates from the musical “Anything Goes,” in which he had a duet. Other days, he’d be at the teacher table.
“Everybody had a connection with him,” Field said.
When Boston’s four draft picks arrived in the city ahead of their introductory press conference, Williams not only set up a group FaceTime call but also invited them to hang out. For every road trip in college, he brought along his favorite board game, Settlers of Catan, and would play often with the walk-ons.
“I had just got into Boston, and he was like, ‘You guys want to play games?’” said point guard Carsen Edwards. “I’m like, ‘Dude, I just got here.'”
The child-like enthusiasm isn’t expected to die down any time soon.
Williams, along with Edwards, Romeo Langford, and Tremont Waters, already attended his first community event Monday, helping unveil a renovated basketball court at the Tobin Community Center in Roxbury. With center Aron Baynes shipped to the Phoenix Suns, Williams seems like the perfect successor as the team’s go-to guy for such events.
“There’s no question he could be president of the ‘Good Kid Club,'” Barnes said.