It's just the beginning for Da'Monte Williams

It's just the beginning for Da'Monte Williams

CHAMPAIGN — Flashes of what Da'Monte Williams could be for Illinois emerged throughout the 2017-18 season.

Like the times where the Illini freshman came flying into the lane for a tip-in putback. Or when he showed off his all-around game with 11 points (not missing a shot and making a surprising three three-pointers), four rebounds and a pair of assists against Purdue.

But those flashes were intermittent. Williams, who didn't get his full clearance after knee surgery until the first day of practice in October, was limited last season not necessarily physically but by the fact he didn't play for nearly an entire year after tearing his left ACL in December 2016 during his senior season at Peoria Manual.

"I don't think we truly saw his athleticism," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "I don't think we saw an overly confident Da'Monte.

"He played on instinct. He played on feel. Now that you can put the mental part with the physical that he'll have this year of getting stronger and the confidence that comes with that I think you have a real high ceiling Da'Monte has in front of him."

Illinois is starting to see all Williams is capable of this spring. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard has his bounce back, finishing regularly above the rim. And he's found his rhythm again on the court.

"The spring has been big for me coming off the leg injury," Williams said. "I didn't have equal enough muscle mass in my knees, but I've been going hard every day in weights and workouts so I can get back fully 100 percent with my knees.

"It feels great to be able to move like that again. Just being more athletic and being able to do more things that I was able to do."

Williams' freshman season almost didn't happen. There's always unknowns with freshmen, and Williams' were compounded by the fact he didn't play a full senior season at Manual. Some doubt existed, too, about the strength of his surgically-repaired knee until he actually tested it last season.

"We literally sat in this office and talked about maybe having to redshirt him," Underwood said. "Yet he stepped forward as a guy that at the end of the day had a really good freshman year — and an exceptional year with all things considered. I was so proud of him for his approach and his fight and his competitiveness."

Williams had some doubts, too, about how his knee would hold up or react during the season. He ended up just missing one game — Illinois' 78-68 loss at Indiana on Feb. 14.

"There were a couple times I was hesitant about doing a move," Williams said. "I just kept it simple."

Underwood sees Wililams with the potential of being Illinois' most improved player in 2018-19.

The son of former Illini All-American Frank Williams averaged 3.5 points and 2.9 rebounds as a freshman and saw his overall shooting percentage take a hit when he struggled behind the three-point line.

How Williams' ability to provide versatile production changes with a return to his pre-injury athleticism is the key question for him moving forward.

"I think there's a little bit of that is an unknown," Underwood said. "I think you're talking about an elite defender. I think you're talking about a guy that instead of missing some of the layups he missed those become dunks. I think you're going to see a much, much better and more consistent jump shooter."

Williams put in work on his jumper throughout last season and hasn't missed a beat this spring. His early morning workouts with Aaron Jordan have continued.

Both Illini guards — two of the six returnees Illinois has — go through a varied workout together, but shooting is a focus.

"I've learned a lot from Aaron," Williams said. "I'm trying to start shooting like him. He just tells me to stick with it. Every day is a grind. Some days the ball goes in every shot, and some days it won't go in. You've just got to keep shooting and keep the same mentality when you're shooting the ball."