Syracuse, N.Y. – Benny Williams was 5-foot-9 his freshman year in high school. For a couple years, his dad worked the phone, trying to convince an AAU program to take him, to let him play or at least practice with their teams. Ben Williams tried four or five different programs, none of which were interested.
Puberty, the Williams family would learn, “is the great equalizer” for boys who play basketball. For Williams, it would temporarily dent a dream conceived while he was a small child bouncing balls at his older sister Lindsay’s basketball practices.
“When you’re in middle school you might have a kid that’s 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 and they’re dunking,” Ben Williams said. “And when you’re maybe 5-8, you’re not a priority.”
Benny Williams would soon become a priority. He would blossom into such a big, bouncy, skilled basketball priority that college coaches from his dream school would one day invite him to their Elite Camp, officially usher him into the Carrier Dome for a football matchup with Clemson, then provide him with courtside seats to watch North Carolina play the Orange in a basketball setting that stunned the whole family.
Benny Williams woke up one morning last June and decided he would declare his basketball intentions. By then, he had grown to 6-foot-8½. He had climbed the recruiting rankings to become an elite prospect in the Class of 2021, his name now attached to five stars. (He’s ranked No. 22 in Rivals new Top 150, No. 33 on 247′s 2021 list.)
When he saw Frank Anselem commit to SU June 3 on social media, Williams contacted the person making his own commitment video and asked if it could be finished that day. He wanted to make official what he had known since he entered the Dome for that Clemson football game and spent time with SU basketball players and coaches.
“Throughout the whole recruiting process, when I got my Syracuse offer, I knew I wanted to go there,” he said. “You can ask my dad. He was talking to me about other schools and I was like, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to Syracuse.’”
“Listen, I cannot wait for Benny to get to Syracuse. I’m ecstatic that that’s where he’s going,” Ben Williams said. “On his visit in September, we got to the airport and he’s like, ‘Why don’t I commit right now?’ and I’m like, ‘Benny, it’s your first visit. There are other coaches. We haven’t been anywhere.’”
But Benny knew what he wanted. He knew SU assistant Adrian Autry had watched him play in a Florida tournament months before anybody wearing a Power Five polo took a look. Autry invited Williams to SU’s Elite Camp when most of Williams’ attention came from low or mid-major programs. He knew how much Syracuse wanted him, could judge by the communication volume with Autry.
He’d grown up in the same Maryland county as Jerami Grant and worked out a couple times with the former SU and NBA forward. He’d watched Grant and Dion Waiters play for Syracuse. He appreciated Jim Boeheim’s Hall-of-Fame hand on the program. He developed an unexplained affinity for the school.
And his body was finally cooperating.
From 2016 to 2018, Benny Williams grew about 11 inches, which was equal parts blessing and curse. An acknowledged fashion appreciator, he went through clothes at a ridiculous rate. (Shoes weren’t as big an issue. He wore size 13 or 14 when he was 5-foot-9 and now wears size 15.) The growth spurt sent shivers of pain through his knees and by the summer of 2018, an orthopedist suggested Williams sit out much of the summer basketball season to still the soreness.
By then, Benny was playing for Mid Atlantic Select and James Lee, who connected to the Williamses through a mutual friend. Williams was 13 or 14 when Lee first watched him play.
“Really good shooter. Smart player. Knew how to play basketball. He played like an older, experienced player,” Lee said. “He didn’t need to play off athleticism like certain kids who can jump and run fast. He didn’t depend on that. He depended on basketball IQ and his skill set.”
Williams played two years on the Riverdale Baptist JV team before transferring to St. Andrew’s for a repeat of his sophomore year. Suddenly, people started noticing his size and commenting on it. He was learning how his new body worked, how to adjust from being a 6-2 guard to a 6-6 guard and then a 6-8 wing. He was figuring out how to shift his frame into a quicker gear, how to alert his suddenly longer limbs to get going.
“What happened is that when he started growing, he did retain some of the guard skills, but not all of it,” Ben Williams said. “He just wasn’t as coordinated. And then once he got used to his body a lot of it came back. He could always shoot the ball pretty good, but the ballhandling improved, the running and jumping, the athleticism – all of it came back once he hit 6-8 and got used to his frame.”
Last season, Williams started on a varsity team for the first time in his basketball career. He played at St. Andrew’s for Kevin Jones, a close friend of Autry, whose own coaching career began in the DMV region. Jones said when Williams arrived at St. Andrew’s “he was one player, and when he completed his season last year as a junior, he was a completely different player.”
Williams averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks last season for a team that went 24-4 and won the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference championship. The Washington Post made him a first-team All-Met selection, a rarity for his school. He also won All-Conference honors.
Jones watched Williams’ handle and jump shot improve. He appreciates Williams’ passing skills, his knowledge of the game. And Williams, too, grew as a defender, his shot-blocking capabilities and his ability to guard more than one position the most obvious upgrades.
“I achieved everything I wanted to achieve last season,” Williams said. “I wanted to average a double-double. I did that. All-Met first team. I did that. Win the MAC championship, that was our team goal. We did that. Last season was one of the greatest seasons. It was definitely the greatest season in St. Andrew’s basketball history, but for as long as I’ve been playing basketball, that was the best season I ever had.”
His success boosted his confidence and elevated his profile, though he had yet to play on a big national stage. Williams played for Team Takeover’s 16U team in the EYBL last year. He looked forward to a crowning summer on the signature 17U circuit, but the coronavirus wiped out the EYBL sessions. Takeover posted video of its practices and scrimmages on social media, providing prep basketball observers a look at the new Benny Williams.
They liked what they saw.
“He’s different now,” his dad said. “Benny’s not the same Benny that people would have seen in the fall. Benny’s 200 pounds now. He’s been in the gym working on his body, so with that added muscle or strength comes some confidence. He’s increased his explosiveness. Your shot becomes more efficient. Your handle becomes tighter and better. He’s a totally different guy than he was in the high school season.”
Because St. Andrew’s had planned to postpone its sports seasons, because of the uncertainty of classes starting on time or happening at all on campus, the Williamses started looking into prep school possibilities with the blessing of Jones, who understood their dilemma. At IMG Academy in particular, the odds seemed better suited to Williams’ continued basketball momentum.
For weeks, IMG has hosted the WNBA “wubble” in Bradenton, Florida. Williams sees players darting around campus on golf carts. The school already had a coronavirus protocol, had medical people at the ready. And it could point to the success of the WNBA as a barometer of what likely would happen in its closed environment.
Benny and his parents visited the campus and decided he would attend school there and play basketball. In addition to the health and safety aspects, IMG coach Chad Myers said the school’s roster of gifted big men meant Williams could play on the perimeter. He will play both guard positions and small forward for IMG. He will be tasked, at times, with plucking the ball off the backboard and pushing it in transition. He will be asked to initiate pick and rolls. He will be asked to do the things Syracuse wants from him next season.
“He has a chance to be really, really good,” Myers said. “That was my thought before, and then over the summer the word had gotten out on him with the rankings going up and up and up. That’s the thing I saw with him the first time I saw him working out with guys who were really good players. I thought he was the most elite guy in the gym. I think his upside is through the roof. I think he should be able to contribute from Day One and, at some point, he’ll have a chance at making money playing basketball if he continues on the same trajectory.”
All of Williams’ former coaches talk like Myers. They see how much Williams loves the game, how much he works at it. They see the dramatic improvement he’s made and can imagine what his game might look like in a few more years.
“I don’t think Benny has peaked,” his dad said. “That’s the thing.”
Benny Williams said he has no real hobbies. He recently sold his PlayStation because it was gathering dust in a corner. He loves basketball. He loves playing it. He loves watching it. That’s basically all he does.
Adults close to him describe him as a “great kid” from a “great family.” They consider him “laid back,” though Williams laughs at that last description. “I’m a goofball,” he said. Myers has already witnessed Williams’ relaxed playfulness with his new teammates, the way he interacts with guys he already considers friends just four weeks into his IMG tenure.
Those days when his dad made calls trying to get someone – anyone – to take a chance on his kid seem so long ago. Benny Williams concedes those were “hard times.”
But he kept believing, kept plugging away at the game, kept hoping he would grow as tall as his dad (6-6) or even his sister (6-1). And then, suddenly, he was on top of the world.
“I don’t really get down on myself too much. I know what I’m capable of,” he said. “It was just a matter of time before I could show people what I was capable of.”
Donna Ditota is a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard and Syracuse.com. Got a comment or idea for a story? Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.