Lost among all the (well-deserved) hype surrounding Luke Maye’s sophomore-to-junior leap was what a fantastic year that Kenny Williams had. After missing most of the 2017 season with a right knee injury, Williams returned in 2018 better than ever, increasing his scoring average from 6.2 to 11.4 points per game. He bettered his shooting percentages drastically, going from 42% (34% 3-pt) to 49% (41% 3-pt). He averaged 2.4 assists per game as well. Not bad for a player expected to be a simple 3 and D.
But his biggest impact was on the defensive end. With Theo Pinson asked to handle the power forward spot, and Cam Johnson lacking superior foot speed following his injury, it frequently fell to Williams to cover opposing teams’ best perimeter players. He was always up to the task, hounding shooters around screens, playing fantastic on-ball defense, and drawing brilliantly timed charges.
Look no further than Michigan’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman, who has just helped shoot the Wolverines into the Final Four. Abdur-Rakhman was a top perimeter threat for U-M and in the Sweet 16 dropped 24 on Texas A&M (sorry to mention them). But when the Wolverines came to Chapel Hill, he finished with just 2 points on 1-6 shooting. He was Williams’ assignment.
In the three games against Duke, Williams was tasked with defending Grayson Allen. And let’s make something absolutely clear: No matter how much contempt we have for him, how gleeful we were to see his buzzer-beater rim out against Kansas, and how much we look forward to him flopping in the pros, there is no denying that Grayson Allen was a terrific college basketball player and had a habit of killing UNC. But in 2018, those searching for Grayson Allen would have been wise to check in Kenny Williams’ back pocket. Over three games, Allen averaged 13.3 points on 12-34 (35%) shooting from the field. His splits were 3-9, 5-14, and 4-11. Suffice to say this: Allen played UNC three times this year and didn’t play well in ANY of the games. And when he was called for a game-sealing charge in the ACC Semifinal, who was the player that drew it? Kenny Williams.
But Williams’ defensive contribution wasn’t limited to guarding the perimeter and drawing charges. He also was a terrific rebounder for a guard. A signature image of the 2018 season for me is watching an opponent miss bounce high off the back iron, only to see Kenny flying through the air to corral it. His numbers weren’t particularly brilliant at 3.7 rpg, but he brought in the kind of rebound that opponents try and get on the offensive glass. His ability to crash the boards from the outside was essential to Carolina’s small ball lineup. UNC, incredibly, was the best rebounding team in the country this season and Williams was a big part of that. Defense doesn’t stop when the other team shoots; it stops when the ball is in your hands.
Going forward, there will be a lot of questions asked about next year’s Tar Heels. Who will be the leader with Joel gone? Who will be the playmaker with Theo gone? How will the bigs develop? Which incoming freshman will make the biggest impact? But if we’re asking who the best defender will be, there’s a pretty heavy favorite: The best defender from this year will be back.