Without ego, Williams leads Heels
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina senior forward Jawad Williams hit four 3s within the first five minutes of the Tar Heels' 20-minute Midnight Madness scrimmage early Saturday morning.
We're not sure too many people noticed.
The focus at the Smith Center seemed to be so much on celebrated freshman Marvin Williams and always-hyped juniors Rashad McCants, Sean May and Raymond Felton.
Yet, earlier in the evening, it was Williams who pulled the coaching staff up onto the court to do a final dance a few minutes before midnight. In the locker room, it was Williams who was the last one to leave, the one who looked the most professional and mature, leaving the arena with a sleek cream sweater, dark pair of slacks and dress shoes, looking like he was ready to go out for an evening at a high-end restaurant.
If all of this talk of national championship, let alone the Final Four, ever comes true, it will be because of the cool and calm Jawad Williams as much as the intense and driven coach Roy Williams.
"He's the backbone of this team," May said of Jawad. "He doesn't say much, but he gets the job done."
No player has gone through as much on this team as Williams. Sure, his fellow seniors Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott also weathered an 8-20 season, the firing of Matt Doherty after the Tar Heels' went 19-16 and landed in the NIT the following season, and the death of their trusted and beloved academic advisor Burgess McSwain of cancer on July 9.
But Williams was the only McDonald's All-American of the three. He was the one expected to come into Chapel Hill and keep the Tar Heels at the elite level -- before the trio of Felton, May and McCants arrived. Yet it has been Williams who checked his ego at the door more than anyone else. He has become the unquestioned leader of this team through his own maturation.
"I was put in my place my freshman year, going 8-20," Williams said. "That was a humbling experience. I've been through a lot. I've been through the death of our academic advisor, the 8-20 year, the Preseason NIT champs and then the coaching change (all in the same season when he was a sophomore). The best thing for me would be to hope for a storybook ending."
No player seems to be as appreciative of Williams as May. It was Williams who got to May after Maryland's Jamar Smith lit him up for 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting in a 90-84 Terps' win in College Park Jan. 14. And it was Williams who earlier had challenged May after Wake Forest's Eric Williams scored 24 points, making 11 of 18 shots, on May in the Demon Deacons' 119-114 triple overtime win at Chapel Hill Dec. 20, 2003.
"We were getting on the bus and I was disappointed with the way I played and it was 'Wad who said 'there's no way Jamar Smith should do that to you.' He told me to 'think about everything [I] did that night' because 'he destroyed you,' " May said. "He did the same thing when Eric Williams came here. Those types of things really made me think about my game.
"I wouldn't be the same player without Jawad," he added. "There have been a lot of times, behind closed doors, that he has set me straight. From the day I got here, he took me under his wing. When Jawad says something to me, I know I've messed up and not done the things I'm supposed to do."
Williams doesn't feel like he has reached his potential and last season was yet another example of a hurdle being tossed his way. He broke his nose and suffered a concussion against UNC-Wilmington, forcing him to miss a game against Coastal Carolina. He then took three different inadvertent blows to the head, including one that caused a second concussion, over a four-game stretch from December to early January. He ended up wearing a protective mask for six games.
The numbers show how it affected him: he averaged 19 points and shot 56.3 percent in the season's first seven games, but averaged only 9.5 points and shot 41 percent in the ensuing 13 games.
"When I broke my nose and had the two concussions, that slowed me down and hurt my team," Williams said. "I was the one who did a lot of the little things and me not being able to do all of that hurt our team."
Williams, along with Manuel and Scott, met with coach Roy Williams prior to his departure to assist with the U.S. Olympic team in July. They discussed their leadership of this team and how critical they would be to the fate of this squad.
Manuel and Scott can be more vocal than Jawad Williams. But he clearly is the one whose voice carries more weight. Williams said he told coach Williams that he wanted to be his voice on the court.
"Jawad doesn't say much, but when he does say something you know he means it," May said.
Just how much does Williams want to win? He wants to model himself after a former Dukie, mentioning former Blue Devils forward Shane Battier as the player he would like to emulate.
"He was the guy taking charges (for the 2001 championship team) and playing defense," Williams said. "When I think things are getting out of hand, I'll say something. Outside of that, I usually stay to myself and lead by example. If I raise my voice then something serious is going on. I don't like to yell and I don't like people to yell at me. We just need to come together as a team and if we do that then the egos won't get in the way."
The Tar Heels don't have to worry about Williams' ego. He already put it aside years ago for this team to climb out of its precipitous drop back into the NCAA Tournament a year ago and now toward a possible Final Four berth his senior season.
"Jawad will be our unsung hero," May said. 'Everyone here is talking about Marvin because he's so tenacious and he had a chance to go to the league out of high school. They'll talk about Rashad because he's so dominant. They'll talk about Raymond and me. The guy they won't talk about much is Jawad. He's willing to take a step down from the things he did last year to help this team win. He might not have to do that. He might take on an even bigger role."
1. Too much national championship talk: Granted it was Midnight Madness and the skits were amusing and light-hearted. But there was way too much promotion of the Tar Heels getting to the Final Four and winning the national title Friday night. The Tar Heel fans are educated enough to know this team has won only one NCAA Tournament game, and appeared in only two NCAA games.
When the night ended, May made sure the local media got the right message before he left the Smith Center.
May said he understands that this team is a work in progress and isn't close to being a championship team yet. And he added a bit more pressure on the squad by saying, "We have no more excuses left to use. We've used everyone in the book."
2. Still thin inside: The Tar Heels will ultimately have three of the top players at their position when they line up with Marvin Williams, Jawad Williams and Sean May. But the depth behind these three is still incredibly thin.
Junior David Noel missed the first six games last year with a torn ligament in his thumb. He finished to play in 24 games, averaging 5.4 points a game. The 6-foot-6 Noel can help behind Marvin Williams and maybe Jawad but he's still not the true low-post presence behind May. The 6-foot-9 Byron Sanders played limited minutes in 28 games last season but he might be called upon if May were in foul trouble. So, too, might 6-foot-11 Damion Grant, who was dogged by tendinitis in his knees last season. All of this proves how critical May is to this squad. He has to stay out of foul trouble.
3. Moody McCants? Rashad is saying the right things by telling the local media last week that the selfishness is gone on the team. He was an active participant during the skits and really looked like he was having a grand time. He was as much a part of this team's antics as everyone else. If he can stay loose, continue to work hard and exhibit his exceptional talent at shooting guard then the Tar Heels do have a shot to get to St. Louis.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.