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UNC basketball: What to make of Kenny Williams’ sophomore year?

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While it might not be totally obvious, Kenny Williams’ second year in Chapel Hill has shown improvement.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest change in the UNC starting lineup coming into this season was at the 2-guard spot. Yes, losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson would be challenging, but two worthy guys (Joel Berry II and Isaiah Hicks) desperate for their own shots were excitedly waiting in the wings. Otherwise, Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks had long proven themselves to be reliable, consistent veterans.

That left the shooting guard position as the biggest question mark in Chapel Hill. For the most part, sophomore Kenny Williams has occupied that role, with some sporadic starting by senior Nate Britt as well. And, while it’s still been the least dependable position in the starting five for Coach Roy Williams, Williams has come a long way and certainly deserves his spot.

Williams has only been a Tar Heel for two years now, and he came in as a young, athletic freshman with a reputation for being a knockdown shooter. His length and energy both portended an ability to play hard, fast-breaking defense. That didn’t happen last year. With the glut of capable guards in front of him—Paige, Berry II, Britt, Theo Pinson—Williams only averaged 4.4 minutes per game. Worse, he only hit one three the whole season.

Williams had about as unremarkable a first year at Carolina as an exciting, youthful shooter can have at such a school. Still, there were whispers of his shooting prowess in practice and how he’d eventually play a much bigger part of a team woefully inconsistent from outside. Even amongst all the anticipation for dominant seasons for Berry II, Hicks and Justin Jackson, there was still a vocal group of people predicting a breakout of sorts for Williams.

In a way, Williams has had that kind of year, just not in the way most fans would have expected. He’s only making one three a game on a poor 33.8 shooting percentage. His overall shooting numbers aren’t much better (41.7 percent from the field), but they are major gains over his freshman numbers of 36.4 percent from the field and 7.7 percent from deep.

Clearly, his shooting hasn’t caught fire for stretches like many thought he would, except for a few explosive, career-best games. Williams did hit seven of ten three’s against Radford and has hit four three’s in three different ACC games. He’s not quite Kenny “Trilliams” yet but, fortunately, the other parts of his game have been a pleasant surprise.

Williams has been solid at defense and possibly even one of the better wing defenders on the team. Both Jackson and Berry II have had weak defensive games, and the team as a whole has struggled against defending dynamic guards (*ahem* Bruce Brown, Grayson Allen, Ky Bowman and, of course, Malik Monk). But Williams has held his own for the most part in his first season getting big minutes.

Williams also seems to have a knack for understanding what kind of player he is and how he fits into Carolina’s system. He is never going to lead the team in shot attempts unless he should because he’s wide open and players are finding him the ball. Williams typically won’t take a bad shot or force something that isn’t there. He has a little Pinson in him, showing an ability to rebound well for his size and pass efficiently and creatively for his position. It says something that, even with a reputation for being a shooter, he’s able to stay on the court during off nights.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the fact that he’s kept his starting lineup throughout the season despite inconsistent play at times. Now, this can be a criticism against Coach Williams for refusing to make changes, but it also suggests how he trusts Williams out there despite his youth and inexperience. Coach Williams is known for quickly pulling players after dumb headed plays or sitting young players, but that really hasn’t happened with Williams.

The future is bright, too, for Williams. UNC and Coach Williams have shown a great aptitude for developing players throughout their time in Chapel Hill. Just look at Paige, Brice Johnson or Berry II, Jackson and Hicks on the team right now. With Williams’ athleticism, hustle and defensive skills, it shouldn’t take much for him to be a true breakout candidate next year. The idea of a Pinson-Williams led team is a little daunting but also tremendously exhilarating.

All this said it would help the Tar Heels tremendously if Williams could hit over 40 percent in tournament play. Jackson and Berry have been the best three-point shooters by far, but both have been streaky, and no one else is much of a threat—although Luke Maye is hitting 38.9 percent from outside. If Williams can even come close to shooting near the level all that high school hype indicated, a balanced UNC team is that much harder to overcome. The fifth-most important starter just might be the difference for Carolina in March.

And now for the highlights: