MINNEAPOLIS Rodney Williams has fully embraced the role of team leader on the Gophers men's basketball team. Look no further than Tuesday for the latest example.
In Minnesota's win against South Dakota State earlier, Williams saw his streak of consecutive games in double-digit points come to an end at 18. In fact, he finished with just two points on 1-of-6 shooting. But the senior forward did other things to help his team win. He had four blocks, a few of which brought the Williams Arena crowd to its feet. He also added a few assists and grabbed two rebounds.
It was far from his most impressive offensive output this season, but that didn't matter to Williams. The thing that mattered most was the final score: Minnesota 88, South Dakota State 64.
"I just want to do anything I can to help my team out, no matter if it's scoring, getting blocked shots, whatever it is," Williams said.
Many times this year, Williams' scoring has been key for the Gophers. While he's yet to score more than 16 points in a game, he was consistently in double figures until Tuesday -- and restarted that streak Saturday with a 13-point effort against USC. Before the win against the Jackrabbits, Williams was Minnesota's leading scorer. But after he scored just two points and sophomore Andre Hollins dropped a game-high 22, Hollins overtook Williams as the Gophers' top scorer.
That's not to say Williams can't be the go-to threat on offense, especially with senior forward Trevor Mbakwe still working his way back from a torn ACL last year. Williams is averaging 12.9 points per game, up slightly from his average of 12.2 last year. He registered his first double-double of the season Saturday in California, adding 11 rebounds along with his 13 points.
Williams is still not a threat from long range -- just 3 for 13 from the 3-point line this season -- but that's not his game. The majority of his scoring comes from near the basket. Now, he's doing that at a more regular clip.
The key to his increased scoring ability, Williams said, is confidence.
"That's all it is. In past years, I wasn't confident at all in myself," Williams said. "I'd miss a shot and I'd be down for a couple games after missing just one shot. It's just confidence in myself. I've got a good support group with my parents, my family, my teammates, my coaches. When they're all positive, it's hard for me not to be."
His parents, father Rodney, Sr., and mother Shanell, are at every home game. They sit in the same seats and arrive at Williams Arena at the same each night. They'll also make it to whichever road games their work schedules allow.
What the Williams' have seen from their son is someone who has gone from a standout at Robbinsdale Cooper High School to a senior leader on a Top 15 program. Minnesota is poised to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years, and Williams' on-court performance is a big reason why.
So, too, is his leadership.
"He's doing a good job of that," said coach Tubby Smith. "I'm really proud of how he's growing up in that area."
Williams has become a fan favorite for his high-flying dunks. If he gets the ball on a breakaway, Gophers fans hold their breath in anticipation of the aerial show Williams is about to put on.
But Williams has used that athleticism and his leaping ability to become an elite shot blocker as well. Prior to Saturday's game against USC, Minnesota led the Big Ten in blocked shots by a wide margin at 7.6 blocks per game. The 6-foot-7, 200-pound Williams is averaging a team-high 1.8 blocks.
"I try to make that a big part of my game," Williams said. "In high school, that was something that I was real good at. Now, I'm kind of carrying that over three years late, but I just want to be a threat down there on defense on the help side."
All of these skills -- his pure athleticism, his leaping ability and his knack for scoring -- could translate into Williams being selected in next year's NBA Draft. Some mock drafts currently have him as a second-round pick. One, NBADraft.net, pegs him as the No. 34 overall pick.
But there's still plenty of basketball left to be played for Williams and the Gophers. They haven't yet hit the Big Ten portion of their schedule, and things could change -- for better or worse.
For now, Williams is just trying to ride the high he and his Minnesota teammates are feeling after their 10-1 start.
"Right now, I'm not thinking about it," Williams said of playing at the next level. "We've got something good going on right now without me worrying about the next level. I'm going to keep it that way."
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