US import at ease with Nuggets

Otago Nuggets import Keith Williams before training at the Edgar Centre in Dunedin on Wednesday....
Otago Nuggets import Keith Williams before training at the Edgar Centre in Dunedin on Wednesday. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Keith Williams had hit tough times before the call finally came.

The 1.96m swingman had been home in New York, working out with his trainer, no playing jobs on the horizon.

He had entered the NBA Draft last June, following four years at the University of Cincinnati.

But a change of circumstances led him to decide to go back to school for one more year, using the extra year of eligibility Covid-19 disruptions granted all NCAA athletes.

He transferred to Western Kentucky University, but knew his eligibility might be compromised after entering the draft.

While he thought that might mean missing a few games, it ended up being the whole season.

So he went home to Brooklyn and stayed ready.

The process was not without its benefits, though.

He had met then-Philadelphia 76ers scout Danny Mills, who has since become general manager of basketball at the Perth Wildcats, owned by SEN, the group which bought the Otago Nuggets late last year.

They had stayed in contact and when it became apparent there was an opportunity to play for the Nuggets, Williams jumped at it.

Now in Dunedin and back on court, he could not be happier.

"That took a toll on me," Williams (23) said.

"I'll be honest, I was depressed for that whole time — me being back home for three months before I came out here. I wasn't in the best head space.

"But me being out here, I'm smiling all day. I'm back in a better space.

"I'm happy I had to go through that. It changed me, it humbled me."

Williams has shown his class in his first two games for the Nuggets.

He had 14 points in a win over the Wellington Saints on debut, before exploding for 19 points in the defining third quarter against the Hawke's Bay Hawks, finishing with 23.

He was dangerous in transition, while his ability to finish at the hoop around defence is elite.

It was a product of learning the game in one of sport's Meccas.

Williams would play whenever he could — both on New York's parks and in whatever games he could find.

Williams, the New York High School player of the year in 2017, committed to Cincinnati, among the top tier of division one colleges.

There he won the American Athletic Conference three times, played in March Madness twice and missed a third due to the tournament being cancelled in 2020.

He averaged 14.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game in his senior year, being named to the All-AAC second team in the process.

Williams said college had humbled him in many ways, teaching him that he had to develop more as more than just a scorer.

Defence became a much bigger focus which left him in good stead for New Zealand, as he was finding defence a bigger aspect and the game more physical than in the United States.

While he retained ambitions of playing in the NBA, his goal for now was firmly to win a championship with the Nuggets.

"Being out here right now, I just want to leave it all out there, because I know what it feels like to have the game taken away from you.

"When you've been doing this your whole life, it's not the best feeling at all. So I'm just happy I get to play every day, practice with these guys. I'm just happy to be out here."

The Nuggets face the Franklin Bulls in Auckland tonight, before playing the Manawatu Jets in Palmerston North on Sunday.

They will be without guard Darcy Knox for a second week in a row.



Auckland, tonight, 7.30

Otago Nuggets: Sam Timmins, Tahjere McCall, Keith Williams, Todd Withers, Josh Aitcheson, Nikau McCullough, Jack Andrew, Matthew Bardsley, Joe Ahie.
Franklin Bulls: Isaac Davidson, Jayden Bezzant, Kane Keil, Anzac Rissetto, Denhym Brooke, Jett Thompson, Leon Henry, Josh Leger, Christian Martin, Ethan Skelton.


-- Jeff Cheshire


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