For the second year in a row, I find myself writing about Kenny Williams. It was hard to do last year, with the memory of Texas A&M still fresh in all of our minds. It’s harder to do so this year. Last year I was able to write how North Carolina’s finest defender would be back the next season, but I am not able to write that today. Kenny Williams has played his last game as a Tar Heel and, like last season, the last game was painful. But this is not the time to mourn the loss of Kenny, but to appreciate just how brilliant a player he was defensively.
In an interview ahead of the NCAA tournament, Kenny Williams was asked about his defensive philosophy. With he grin he said “Forty minutes of hell.” While Nolan Richardson may have a trademark infringement beef there, that comment more than sums up the terror that Kenny Williams was for opposing offensive players.
No one on the 2019 North Carolina Tar Heels worked harder than Kenny Williams. That’s not a knock on anyone’s work ethic: Luke Maye is a notorious gym rat, Cam Johnson worked his rear end off to come back from injury, Nassir Little and Coby White were as committed a pair of freshman as you’ll ever see. But Kenny Williams was 6’4” 185 pounds of pure elbow grease. His constant hustle, his willingness to throw himself on the deck, and his focus on drawing charges were on full display all season long.
Let’s talk about those charges: Dear Lord. Kenny’s ability to position himself to draw offensive fouls was truly preposterous this year. Over and over again, opposing players threw up their hands and headed back down the court, the victim of yet another Kenny Williams Special. Perhaps my memory is foggy or perhaps I’m not old enough to remember players that predated me, but has any Tar Heel excelled at drawing charges as much as Kenny?
Had Kenny Williams played 8 miles down the road, perhaps those defensive instincts would be better appreciated: Duke defenders have long drawn wall-to-wall coverage from the 4-letter network in Bristol. Shane Battier’s charges were discussed every week. Hell, Steve Wojciechowski managed to win National Defensive Player of the Year because he discovered that slapping the floor would make him appear to be working hard. But alas, the Duke Sports Network paid him little mind, and Kenny was made an unsung hero.
Even one of their own was able to recognize the injustice of it:
All due respect to the selections and the voters, but how does UNC’s Kenny Williams not make the ACC All-Defensive Team? There needs to be a recount. There is no way he’s not among the league’s five best defenders. No way.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) March 11, 2019
It’s possible that the voters saw Kenny’s pedestrian numbers (0.9 steals and 0.3 blocks per game). But steals and blocks don’t tell the story of how important and effective a defender is.
Case in point; every night Kenny was tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer. And darn near every night he was more than equal to the task. His handcuffing of Louisville’s Jordan Nwora in the ACC Quarterfinal was terrific. His three drawn charges and crucial block on RJ Barrett on Senior Night will never be forgotten.
His ball denials, pursuits around screens, and discipline all were the marks of an elite veteran defender. Think about this: In the 36 games UNC played this season, Kenny didn’t foul out ONCE and only committed four fouls three times. This is while constantly attempting to draw charges and always guarding a top scorer. That’s incredible.
That the last image of Kenny Williams in a UNC uniform was in tears on the sideline is unfair to him. But it also showed just how much he cared. He was the emotional leader of the team all season and he wore his heart on his sleeve. And anyone who had the privilege of watching Kenny Williams play defense for four years can tell you that that’s a big heart.