Shaun Neal-Williams had low expectations for his freshman season when he joined the Kansas State basketball team a few months ago. As long as he improved his game and helped the Wildcats in any small way he would have considered it a successful year.
Things are different now.
With Kamau Stokes (limited) and Dean Wade (out) with foot injuries, Neal-Williams’ role has expanded significantly the past two games. And the 6-foot-3 guard has taken advantage, scoring six points in 20 minutes against Texas and following that up with seven points in 19 minutes against Texas Tech.
Suddenly, he’s thinking bigger.
“I think (my expectations) changed a lot,” Neal-Williams said Tuesday before a K-State practice. “I think the coaches trust me more and see that I can bring a lot to the team. I feel like I can make a difference.”
He made a big difference during K-State’s last game. The Wildcats fell behind 14-0 and appeared on their way to a blowout loss. But Neal-Williams provided a spark off the bench with seven points and two assists.
Some of his best plays came off the dribble, including back-to-back passes to Makol Mawien for layups in the second half. Slowly but surely, the Wildcats got back in the game and pulled within one before losing 63-57.
By no mean was Neal-Williams the lone reason K-State mounted a comeback attempt, but he certainly helped.
“His playmaking is big. He is stepping up,” Mawien said. “I feel like he is doing pretty good. We know what type of player he is from practice, but that is the type of play we need from people like him with guys out.”
K-State coach Bruce Weber will once again turn to him for about 20 minutes of action when the Wildcats return to the court against West Virginia on Wednesday at Bramlage Coliseum.
Stokes is expected to play close to his normal minutes, but Neal-Williams has been more productive than more experienced guards on the roster. Wade is nearing a return, but he’s not quite ready to play against the Mountaineers.
As difficult as it has been for K-State to score without him, the Wildcats could use another solid outing from their freshman guard from St. Louis.
“He is a willing passer and he has that natural playmaking ability,” Weber said. “He’s got some quickness. Right now, he seems fearless. Gut-check point of the game, he made two or three big plays the other day. He is making some progress.”
That’s not surprising.
K-State coaches were high on Neal-Williams when they signed him last fall and hoped he could contribute immediately. But they also tempered their expectations when he missed summer practices in order to fulfill his academic requirements.
He started off behind his peers. Now he is catching up.
“It feels like the game has slowed down a lot,” Neal-Williams said. “I am getting used to it now.”
He has done enough to carve out an important role as a freshman. If he keeps this up, his playing time will continue to grow.