Pelicans 2019 preseason profile: Kenrich Williams

Second-year forward Kenrich Williams has a decidedly no-frills, no-flash kind of game on the basketball court. As one Twitter user complained early in New Orleans training camp, “Kenrich needs to get some swag.”

But if you’re looking for highlight-reel plays or gaudy statistics, not only have you come to the wrong place, but you’re entirely missing the point. A man known as “Kenny Hustle” since college didn’t make the Pelicans’ roster last October – nor become a fan favorite based on his all-out effort and scrappiness – worrying about what looks cool.

“My job is the dirty work,” Williams said. “I get rebounds, play defense, do the little things. Be a glue guy. I’m not going to go out and get you 30 points every night, but every coach I’ve played for has appreciated the stuff I do on the court – and I’m very appreciative of them for the opportunity (to play). I think I bring a lot to the table, from my work ethic, to playing hard every time.”

It was fitting that Williams’ path to logging 1,079 minutes and starting 29 games as a New Orleans rookie actually began with him picking up 36 DNPs out of the team’s first 48 games in ’18-19. From the beginning, nothing in his hoops career has ever been handed to him.

The native of Waco, Texas, had zero Division I scholarship offers coming out of high school, resulting in him playing junior-college ball. After emerging as a regular double-double guy over three seasons at TCU, he went undrafted by NBA teams, despite being projected by many analysts as a second-round pick.

“I’ve always been like that,” Williams said of being an overlooked player. “I think it just comes from being from a small city. I didn’t get a lot of exposure. I didn’t play AAU ball on the circuit, so I wasn’t able to get a scholarship. I’ve felt like an underdog my whole life. I was supposed to get drafted, but then I didn’t.

“It all comes back to having that chip on my shoulder and proving myself. I knew teams had red-flagged me because I had surgery on my knee, but I didn’t think I was going to go undrafted. But it all ended up working out for me. It’s turned out to be a blessing.”

Williams’ rookie campaign got a major kick-start in late January, 24 hours after Anthony Davis publicly requested a trade. Amid various injuries to teammates, Williams logged 30 minutes Jan. 29 at Houston, the first time he’d played more than 18 minutes in any game as a pro. He responded with a gritty 16-rebound outing in a stunning Pelicans road win on national TV, then went for 21 points and eight boards the next night in a narrow home loss to Denver. He ended up starting each of the final 29 games – not bad for a guy who wasn’t even a lock to be on the team during training camp. Despite his late introduction to the rotation, he still led the Pelicans in total charges drawn, with eight.

“One of the reasons I made the roster was the way I play,” Williams said. “I make the right plays; I don’t try to make the home-run plays. I hustle, play hard and that’s something every team needs, a guy like that. (During the stretch of many DNPs), I was being a professional, getting my work in before practice, always staying ready. I got my opportunity vs. Houston, and the rest is history.”

Although Williams’ contributions to a team aren’t predicated on scoring, it was important this offseason for the 24-year-old to improve the consistency on his perimeter shot. After a strong start, he finished at 33.3 percent from three-point range, leading Pelicans coaches to tweak the form on Williams’ shot, which at times had seemed to scrape the Smoothie King Center ceiling en route to the basket.

“There is actually less arc on it,” said Williams, who’s worked closely with assistant coaches Fred Vinson and Joe Boylan. “At first, I was shooting it up (higher) in the air and the trajectory is more likely to be off that way. If you shoot it with some arc, but not too much arc like I was, there is a better chance for the ball to go in. I’m looking forward to showing what I can do.”

If that change translates to more buckets and a higher scoring average for Williams, he just might garner a bit more attention and recognition for what he brings to his NBA team. Regardless, he knows that his role isn’t about point production – and he’s totally fine with that.

“I want to be aggressive, but I need to be smart with it,” Williams said, before alluding to the overall offensive talent in New Orleans. “I know I’ve got a lot of guys on my team who can go get a bucket – Jrue (Holiday) can go get one, Brandon Ingram can get one. My job is to space the floor out, be ready to shoot when the ball gets passed to me, and just go make plays.

“I’ve never thought (about focusing more on scoring). I can never see myself going out and shooting 20-plus shots a night – I just can’t see myself doing that. I’m a team player. I fit well in a system and playing as a team. Not saying that I can’t go get a bucket, but I’d rather play the right way.”