Missouri sophomore forward Johnathan Williams III is exceedingly nice.
Teenagers, especially ones who play major-conference basketball, don’t come any nicer than Williams, who addresses the media as “sir” and mentions feeling blessed in nearly every interview.
Driven by a deep faith, Williams’ kindness and politeness is genuine, but he’s no longer interested in being nice — at least as far as basketball is concerned.
“I’m trying to be a mean guy on the court but also outside the lines be nice … ,” Williams said. “It’s OK to be (a jerk) on the court, but it’s not cool to be (a jerk) off the court, so I’m trying to balance that.”
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Missouri’s coaches tried to draw out Williams’ inner beast last season, but he always felt like something of a spare part on a team that featured Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross.
There were precious few shots to spread around beyond that trio, who accounted for 70.5 percent of the Tigers’ scoring last season.
“Johnathan is a guy who started every game a year ago but more in a secondary role,” Anderson said. “Last year, we had Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross. Those guys were three primary guys and scored the bulk of the points for this team. J3 was a guy who was kind of able to pick his spots to get some buckets and did a great job of rebounding.”
That, of course, is no longer the case after Ross graduated and both Clarkson and Brown declared early for the NBA Draft.
Williams, who was limited in the preseason by a partial meniscus tear in his right knee, has been forced into a primary scoring role, forced into a leadership position and forced to find the long-buried mean streak within himself.
“It’s been something I’ve been dealing with pretty much my whole basketball career,” said Williams, who averaged 5.8 points and 6.5 rebounds last season. “You guys can see I’m a pretty nice guy, but I’ve been trying to balance that nice guy and the mean guy on and off the court. I’m trying to assert myself.”
He’s succeeded since returning from the Maui Invitational.
Williams, who had tightness in his knee and played only seven minutes in the eighth-place game against Chaminade, has scored at least 15 points with at least eight rebounds in each of the last seven games, averaging 17.1 points and nine rebounds.
“I’ve really challenged him, and I think he’s responded,” Anderson said. “I’m going to continue to challenge him. He wants to be challenged. I think he wants to be the best player that he can.”
Williams — known to coaches and teammates as “J3” — has been thrust into a leadership role by default, especially with the dawn of conference play at 6 p.m. Thursday against LSU at Mizzou Arena.
“That’s the person I go to, for sure, because he’s played against this SEC team and the whole SEC league,” freshman forward D’Angelo Allen said of Williams. “He has a feel of it. He knows the beating that’s going to come. He knows the hitting that’s fitting to come. He knows everything because he was there as a freshman starting against big-time players, too.”
Williams said he’s “starting to enjoy the (leadership) role a lot more,” even if it remains an adjustment.
“He’s not the loudest guy in the room, but sometimes you don’t have to be the loudest guy in the room and you can still lead by example,” freshman guard Tramaine Isabell said. “He’s the first one in the gym and sometimes the last one to leave. Little things like that, you have to respect, so when he says something you have to listen.”