Nino Williams should not be smiling.
Not while he recalls stories of growing up fatherless in an impoverished St. Louis neighborhood. Not while he explains how he was duped into leaving it for a “fake” Kansas City high school. Not while he discusses the tireless work it took to academically qualify for college. And not while he describes the dozens of injuries he has sustained during his five years at Kansas State.
These are not cheerful memories, yet the senior is sharing them like lines from a romantic comedy.
“It hasn’t always been good, but, at the same time, it has always been good,” says Williams, pausing to smile. “That probably doesn’t make any sense. I guess what I’m trying to say is: I learned from it — all of it. It helped me with life, and it taught me how to make it through tough situations. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The journey has been most fun recently. Williams, a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder, has revitalized himself as a technically sound forward who thrives on mid-range jumpers after years of focusing on athletic plays as a swingman. The transition has led to career-high averages (11.5 points and 5.2 rebounds), honors (two Big 12 player of the week awards) and respect (team captain).
K-State coach Bruce Weber thinks Williams’ leadership is the glue holding the Wildcats together during a tumultuous season.
“Nino plays hard every time,” Weber says. “He has been great for us. He worked very hard this summer, as hard as he has worked since I have been here. That’s why he is having a great year. It’s just sad the team isn’t.”
Still, his improvement is a beacon of hope for an up-and-down team. K-State players say the key to turning things around — building on four victories against ranked teams and forgetting about a 14-15 record — starts with emulating Williams. They want to send him out with a victory in his final home game Saturday against Iowa State.
“People are starting to see how good he is,” senior forward Thomas Gipson says. “They are starting to see what he can do on offense and on defense as far as playing hard and getting deflections and steals. We all knew it was coming. He is a leader.”
In one sense, this is all a surprise. In another, this was expected.
The way outsiders view Williams depends entirely on when they set expectations.
When Williams signed with K-State in the summer of 2010, he did so as an all-state honoree and a four-star prospect, the highest-rated player in a recruiting class that included Will Spradling and Shane Southwell. But while they started, made game-winning plays and scored 1,000 career points, Williams watched from the bench, or, more often, the rehabilitation room.
Williams’ first four years at K-State were filled with disappointment and injuries. Two concussions forced him to take a redshirt as a freshman, nagging knee problems led to surgeries. Ailments to his shoulder, legs and feet slowed him down.
“He gets hurt on almost every play,” Weber says. “You feel bad, but that is who he is. He plays with reckless abandon. It is one of his strengths, but, unfortunately, it has led to injuries. It’s just a good thing he is tough.”
Williams has played through pain on countless occasions, but the injuries have taken a toll. His teammates jokingly call him “Old Man Legs.” Weber said Williams would benefit from the occasional game off, like a veteran NBA player in the twilight of his career.
Nevertheless, Williams has found his top form, scoring 20 or more points four times this season and shooting down Kansas with 15 points Monday.
In a weird way, the injuries have helped. Early in his career, he often tried to do too much and entered his senior season averaging 4.7 points. Now, he focuses on simple tasks like setting screens, grabbing rebounds and taking mid-range jump shots few others value. He is a master on the baseline.
“One thing I’ve learned is two points is two points,” Williams says. “They don’t all have to be dunks, which is good because I can’t dunk like I used to. That mentality helped me a lot, just understanding the game. The game is not about dunking and making highlight plays. There is a lot else that goes into it.”
A new start
The first time Derek Zeck met Williams, he saw a shy and frightened teenager.
Today, they are family. Williams calls him dad.
The relationship began when Williams left St. Louis and transferred to Milestone Christian Academy, a basketball-centric prep school in Kansas City. Williams thought a new high school and AAU team, MoKan Elite, would provide him the structure and support needed to chase his dreams.
It all looked great on paper, but the school was too good to be true. It encountered accreditation problems, meaning that if Williams wanted to academically qualify for college, he had to transfer again.
“What a joke,” Williams says. “I enrolled in a fake school.”
He was lost.
Enter Zeck, owner of Zeck Ford in Leavenworth, who knew Williams from MoKan Elite. He volunteered to adopt Williams, become his legal guardian and help him get back on track.
“Here was a kid who had nowhere else to turn,” Zeck said. “He was doing a lot of good things in a tough situation, and when you see that you want to help. We didn’t hesitate to take him in. It turned out good for him and good for our family. He is a big-time success story.”
Living with a well-off family in Kansas took some getting used to after sharing a house with six siblings and his mother in St. Louis, Williams liked the transition.
Though Williams says his St. Louis home “was not that bad,” he rarely visits and his mother lacks the money to attend games. She plans to make her first visit to Bramlage Coliseum for K-State’s senior day Saturday. He regularly speaks to her, but spends holidays with the Zecks. He has met his biological father, but rarely speaks to him, guessing he lives in California.
“It doesn’t really matter what he’s doing,” Williams said. “I’m 23 years old and I have a family.”
A family that helped him prosper.
Shortly after moving in with the Zecks, he became the best basketball player at Leavenworth High and began boosting his then-1.3 GPA. He committed to K-State early as a junior and worked around the clock, spending 20 hours a week each summer at a credit-recovery program to pass extra classes and qualify for an athletic scholarship.
He had so much ground to make up that he planned to attend prep school for a year and join K-State in 2011. Instead, he qualified on time, twice making the Big 12 commissioner’s honor roll since.
“He worked his tail off and did it all on his own,” Zeck said. “Just like now on the basketball court, he found a way. I like to compare him to a junkyard dog. His career has been up and down, but he has persevered. To graduate on time and now receive academic awards, I mean, are you kidding me?
“It’s the same thing on the basketball court. You don’t see many 6-5 four men doing what he does. It’s all because he works so hard.”
Going out with a bang
Williams is not sure how much longer his body will allow him to play basketball. He hopes to play professionally overseas for a few years “to experience it.” But mounting injuries may push him in other directions.
With a degree in social science and the pursuit of a Master’s in conflict analysis and trauma studies underway, he will have options.
Still, he values the final games of his senior year. Another trip to the NCAA Tournament appears out of reach, but he hasn’t given up hope. If K-State could consistently play with the energy it showed during a 70-63 victory over Kansas, he says, the Wildcats would be a top-10 team. Why not finish the season playing like one?
“There is nothing better than playing your best as a senior,” Williams said. “Everyone wants to go out with a bang.”
Williams is doing exactly that.
He should be smiling.
“This is the player I always knew I could be,” Williams said. “If I knew what I know now, I would have done things differently and this probably would have happened sooner. But things happen in life. I wouldn’t take anything back. It’s been a great ride that made me a better person.”
Nino Williams’ improvement at K-State
Freshman season: 2.2 points, 2.1 rebounds
Sophomore: 4.2 points, 3.3 rebounds
Junior: 6.2 points, 3.5 rebounds
Senior: 11.5 points, 5.2 rebounds