All systems go for Da'Monte Williams

All systems go for Da'Monte Williams

CHAMPAIGN — Da'Monte Williams was almost the "forgotten man" of Illinois' freshman class.

A knee injury last December sidelined the Peoria Manual guard for the remainder of his senior season. That meant all but the game he was injured and the three games he dominated at the Adam Lopez Thanksgiving Tournament at Springfield Lanphier where he averaged 25.6 points per game and had the Rams off to a 3-0 start.

In the interim, Trent Frazier continued lighting teams up in Florida with 30-plus point peformances sprinkled throughout his season. Mark Smith's stock skyrocketed into spring as a top Illinois recruiting target.

Then John Groce was fired, Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett decamped to Missouri, Brad Underwood was hired and Smith and big men Greg Eboigbodin and Matic Vesel were added to the Illini's 2017 class.

Williams' rehab and recovery from his torn ACL — plus his decision to remain committed after the coaching change — continued during that time.

And nearly 10 months after the injury, the Illini legacy returned to the court for Illinois' first practice on Sept. 29 — officially cleared and healthy if not yet in 100 percent peak condition.

Williams still impressed Underwood during Illinois' first week-plus of practice. The 6-foot-3 combo guard has flashed the versatile skill set that saw him average 15.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals during his junior year at Manual.

"Through nine practices, if I have a surprise, it's him," Underwood said at Illinois' Oct. 11 media day. "Only because I didn't have a base to judge him on throughout the spring and summer due to his injury. ... You're talking about a guy that lost eight weeks of summer workouts and a guy that didn't participate at all this spring literally in anything at home because of his knee.

"He's playing catch-up, but has been very, very good at, really, a multitude of positions. I think his versatility is such that he can guard a lot of different postions. Great length and great hands."

Returning to peak physical condition is an ongoing process for Williams. It started during the summer with Illinois strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher, who keeps an eye on the team's nutrition, too.

Williams didn't drop any weight in the offseason, but went through a significant change in body composition.

Fletcher posted a photo of four breakfasts for four different Illini the first week of the summer session. Three were fairly healthy, Fletcher-approved options. A fourth — which turned out to be Williams' breakfast — was french toast, a side of bacon and a few apple slices.

"I was hurt so I was eating a lot of bad food," Williams said. "I'm getting out of the habit. It's just getting back to playing basketball. I haven't played in several months. I'm really getting back into the groove of playing basketball."

That groove has Underwood seeing some Frank Williams in Da'Monte. Father and son aren't exact basketball replicas. Frank was more of a true point guard with more advanced handles, while Da'Monte a better shooter and leaper, but the first-year Illinois coach can draw a parallel between the two.

"I see the instincts," Underwood said. "(Frank) had a way about him that Da'Monte has in terms of they kind of lull you to sleep and yet he's the first one down the court. ... The game is played at a pace for Da'Monte already that is casual. The game doesn't get sped up for him."

Father and son's ability to find open teammates with just a quick flip of the wrist makes the comparions even easier to make. Watching Williams pass can stir up some 18-year-old memories.

"He throws passes that he sees and not many other people see what his vision was there," Underwood said of his freshman guard.

Only so often does Williams catch his teammates unaware with a pass they weren't necessarily expecting. But if Williams sees an opening, expect a pass to be sent on its way.

"I'm always looking for teammates who are wide open or even open by a couple seconds," Williams said. "They never know when they're going to be open so they have to be ready, and I have to be ready to make the pass."

Williams doesn't feel any pressure to live up to his father's legacy. It's a point he's hammered home the past few years as his recruitment picked up and certainly after he opted to join the Illini just like his father did.

"I just go out there and show what I'm capable of doing and have fun with it," Williams said. "He kind of likes to let me go through it first. He's always there to talk with me or if I have any questions."

The turning point in the Williams family 1-on-1 matchups came when Williams was in seventh grade and he split two games with his father, beating him for the first time.

"After that, I think he got the picture that I wasn't going to let him beat me anymore," Williams said with a smile.

Williams doesn't intend on letting Illinois' opponents off easy this season either — especially coming in with a "special group" alongside Smith and Frazier.