This is a story about getting a second chance in life and taking advantage of it. Former Middle Tennessee State forward JaCorey Williams was the beneficiary of that second chance. Could it lead him to the NBA?
Williams has a long way to go before that becomes reality. But he helped his cause earlier this month by leading the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in scoring. NBA scouts say it wasn’t the greatest PIT field ever, but Williams averaged 20.3 points and seven rebounds and shot 54 percent from the field. That got some scouts’ attention.
Those three days in Portsmouth were a microcosm of Williams’ last two years, yet another opportunity to show that the mistakes he made in the summer of 2015 while playing at Arkansas were long behind him. Those who know him best aren’t betting against him.
“If he gets in an [NBA] camp, JaCorey will figure out a way to outwork everybody else,” said Middle Tennessee assistant coach Ronnie Hamilton, who spent considerable time helping Williams refine his raw talent into a multi-faceted skill set. “He’s just got to get in the right situation.
“Portsmouth was a testament to that fact. He went there with something to prove, and he led the whole thing in scoring. If he got to Chicago [and the NBA Draft Combine], I think he’d play really well there. He thinks he’s the best guy on the court every single time he plays.”
Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis echoes those thoughts as well.
“He plays with great edge,” Williams said. “The game might not be going well for him early, but he can right himself midstream and get right back going. When we play teams from high-level conferences, JaCorey thinks he’s the best player on the floor every time. And that spills over to his teammates.”
When Williams thinks back to the summer of 2015, he might remember it as the worst time in his life. The wounds were self-inflicted, too. Williams was arrested for passing counterfeit money and also investigated for an assault in a Fayetteville, Ark. nightclub. Though the counterfeit charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor, the damage had been done. Arkansas coach Mike Anderson had little choice but to kick Williams off his team.
Enter Davis, who had heard about Williams’ travails and decided to inquire as to whether they were indicative of the player’s character, or just aberrations. As Davis watched Williams on film, he saw a live-wire athlete who needed to pack on a few pounds of muscle and learn some fundamentals, but otherwise could be a difference maker.
Davis and his staff vetted Williams as though he were a candidate for public office. First Hamilton called his friend Chris Monroe, who had coached Williams in AAU ball.
“You’ve known me for years,” Monroe told Hamilton. “I would not vouch for JaCorey if I didn’t think he’d represent your program and coach Davis the right way.”
Next came a meeting with Williams’ parents. “His mom owns a couple of restaurants,” Hamilton said. “So you knew he came from a good, hard-working family. That made us feel good.”
Arkansas coaches were called, too. “Each one had a different perspective,” Hamilton said. “But basically, the story was that young, immature guys can sometimes make mistakes.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a guy take advantage of a redshirt year better than JaCorey did. ... He worked tirelessly on his game, a ton of individual stuff before and after practice. He’s a guy that’s just into ball.”
The athletics directors from MTSU and Arkansas also spoke. And finally, Williams’ lawyer and the district attorney in Arkansas were consulted. After all that, Davis felt comfortable offering Williams a scholarship. Davis’ bosses gave him wide berth in making that call, given that the last 52 players who completed their eligibility at MTSU graduated.
Suffice it to say playing for Davis was a bit of culture shock for Williams. At Arkansas -- which traditionally deploys an aggressive, attacking style on both ends of the floor -- Williams used his athleticism to make plays. Davis is a stickler. Screens and box outs must be executed properly and defense is emphasized (and must be played a certain way). Williams recoiled at first, but came to understand how Davis was coaching him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a guy take advantage of a redshirt year better than JaCorey did,” Davis said. “He gained about 21 pounds. He worked tirelessly on his game, a ton of individual stuff before and after practice. He’s a guy that’s just into ball.”
Davis realized that when Williams, who couldn’t travel with the team during his redshirt year, drove to away games on his own. Williams was in St. Louis in March 2016 when the No. 15-seeded Blue Raiders shocked the college basketball by booting No. 2-seeded Michigan State from the NCAA tournament.
“From Murfreesboro to St. Louis, it’s a four-and-a-half, five-hour drive,” Williams said during the 2017 NCAA tournament. “I made it four-and-a-half, kind of speeding, kind of excited to watch these guys play. There was no question I was going to go to the game, no matter how far it was. I don't care if it was a 10-, 12-hour drive. I wanted to show my teammates I was there to support them. I was just as excited as they were to play in the game.”
Williams would get his own opportunity to play in the NCAAs. But first he had to live up to Davis’ expectations and fit in with a veteran, accomplished team. In particular, Williams had to mesh with junior guard Giddy Potts and senior forward Reggie Upshaw. He did that and more.
“I'm not really the most vocal guy at times, and Giddy, he's never really that vocal,” Upshaw said. “JaCorey is the guy, if we need somebody to kind of spark the huddle or just during the game when the five that are out there huddled up, he's the one guy you always hear his voice the most.”
“He's grown up as a man -- on and off the floor,” Potts said. “He helps guys in so many ways, and he just give our team a spark when he's in the game, and when he's out of the game, just having the vocal presence in the huddle.”
Williams led MTSU in scoring and rebounding, helping the Blue Raiders win the Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles. The latter was the only way the Blue Raiders could claim a return trip the the NCAAs. For a second consecutive year, they delivered on that stage, beating Minnesota 81-72 in a first-round game.
Butler was too much for MTSU to handle in the second round, but in his final college game, Williams produced game highs of 20 points and nine rebounds. His recovery from that pivotal summer of 2015 had come full circle.
Now he gets to see if his comeback story can continue at an even higher level. Is there a chance for a player who’s not quite a power forward, not quite a wing, but has a toolbox full of skills?
“I think the Draymond Greens of the world have given guys like JacCorey Williams a chance to make clubs in the NBA,” Davis said. “Everybody wants skill level. Even at the forward spot, guys have got to be able to play make, keep the floor spread with perimeter shooting. The days of the two conventional bigs are almost extinct.
“It’s hard when you don’t have guys who can pick and pop, or drive it from 18, 20 feet. JaCorey is as good a midrange, 17- to 18-foot shooter as we’ve ever had here, he can pass and handle, and he guards multiple positions. He’s a valuable cat to have on your roster.”
During the NCAA tournament, Williams was asked about the second chance Davis -- and MTSU -- gave him.
“Coming here basically changed my life,” Williams told Al.com. “It lets you know that you can go through any type of adversity throughout your lifetime and you can get yourself together, get another chance, let everyone see the real you, and that's what I did.”
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