Playing for a team with an established corps of post players, Missouri freshman forward Johnathan Williams III might have eased into college basketball.
He could have been immersed slowly into a world where almost every opposing player he runs up against in the paint is as strong or stronger, as quick or quicker and every bit as talented.
Williams, a smooth 6-foot-9 left-hander from Southwind High School in Memphis, Tenn., wasn’t afforded such a luxury.
“Everybody’s talented and, especially in the SEC, everybody is very physical,” Williams said. “All the bigs are athletic. So I’ve had to learn to play against tougher guys and more physical guys.”
It’s been a baptism by fire for Williams, who has started all 25 games and averaged more than 26 minutes per game — more than any other Tigers frontcourt player this season.
There have some tremendous moments, including Williams’ 17-rebound performance against Gardner Webb and a double-double (10 points and 15 boards) against UCLA.
There also have been more than a few potholes, including a rough night when Missouri played at Vanderbilt, who comes calling on Mizzou Arena for a 7 p.m. tipoff Wednesday night.
“It’s all about the physicalness of the game,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “For a young kid, a high school kid, going to college at this level, what you think would be a foul in high school is not necessarily a foul in college. Getting adjusted to that takes time.”
During Williams’ first 15 college games, he made nearly half of his shots, but that shooting percentage took a nosedive after the struggles against the Commodores.
Williams went three for eight in that Jan. 16 loss, blowing a couple of uncontested layups and banging a dunk hard off the back iron. His confidence shaken, Williams went through a stretch where he became tentative and had several shots blocked at the rim in multiple games.
“It’s been pretty tough,” said Williams, who averages 6.1 points and a team-high 7.1 rebounds. “I had to learn to finish through contact and that has been a struggle for me. It’s been pretty hard to adjust, but I know hard work will always pay off. You can’t put your head down. You’ve just got to keep lifting your head up.”
Until making all three shots and scoring 10 points Saturday against Tennessee — his first double-digit scoring effort in SEC play — Williams was shooting 38.5 percent since Missouri’s loss at Vanderbilt.
Still, Williams’ teammates applaud the positive attitude and endless effort he’s put into beating the learning curve.
“That’s part of being a freshman,” junior Jabari Brown said. “You’re going to have ups and downs. He had some tough stretches, and he’s had some good moments. We call on him to do a lot, and that’s because coach and the rest of us have confidence in him and know what he can do for our team.”
Williams, who is poised to become the first freshman to lead Missouri in rebounding since Linas Kleiza in 2003-04, wasn’t ready to declare his outing against a physical and well-respected Volunteers’ frontcourt as a turning point.
Williams thinks every game — even the ones when he labors — are a step forward.
“Each game I’m learning something new,” Williams said. “I’ve still got to learn some more lessons, but I’m just going to keep working hard every day. I’m out here having fun and learning. There have been some bumps in the road, but I’m still having fun doing the thing I love to do at a high level.”