Without a doubt, Da'Monte Williams carves out niche on Illini

Without a doubt, Da'Monte Williams carves out niche on Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Da'Monte Williams arrived in Champaign last June just six months removed from a knee injury and subsequent surgery that ended his senior season at Peoria Manual after just four games.

Williams also began his Illinois basketball career not knowing if he'd play this season. In fact, he was pretty sure he'd redshirt. His surgically-repaired knee just didn't feel right.

"I thought my knee wouldn't be 100 percent," Williams said. "I wasn't where I was supposed to be, I felt, but I just put that in the back of my mind and kept pushing every day. ... It's a tough, long process. It may take up to a year. You just never know how your knee is feeling."

Williams' push to 100 percent continued into the start of his freshman season. He's since shed the knee brace he opened the year with, and the improved bounce he's shown as Illinois gets set to return to action at 7 p.m. today against Iowa has him feeling more like his old self.

"I had a little bit of doubt," Williams said about his state of mind this past summer. "I don't have doubt anymore."

Brad Underwood didn't have any doubt in the 6-foot-3 freshman guard. From the beginning of practice in October to now, the first-year Illinois coach has repeatedly said Williams has an "it" factor to him.

Williams has a knack for being in the right place and making the plays the Illini need.

"You're born with it," Underwood said. "You grow up with it. You hone it in by playing. You have a natural instinct that will continue to grow. There's no limit on it.

"Those things are innate, but they're also worked on. They grow because of experience. You become more athletic, you become stronger and you become quicker. All those things enhance that."

Williams doesn't lead Illinois in any one statistical category. His contributions, though, stretch across the board.

He led the Illini in rebounding against Minnesota four days after leading them in assists against Grand Canyon.

"I'm just being a basketball player," he said. "Obviously I don't score a lot of points, but I like to do all the little things so I can put our team in position to win."

And Underwood sees plenty of value in that.

"Basically, he didn't shoot a ball for a year," he said. "You're going to see some inconsistencies in his shooting and that's part of it. But for a (19)-year-old kid to come in and have the impact he's had on our team after sitting out a year, I'm really impressed with him."