Coach talks about having Kenny Williams healthy after being out for most of last season with an injury. Williams is averaging 13 points per game this season. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com
Coach talks about having Kenny Williams healthy after being out for most of last season with an injury. Williams is averaging 13 points per game this season. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina

The unsung two-way standout who has helped UNC get off to a fast start

December 05, 2017 02:50 PM

CHAPEL HILL

Kenny Williams had two knee surgeries in a five-month span earlier this year.

You could never tell by watching the North Carolina guard play basketball.

Healthy and happy, Williams has settled into his role as UNC’s top defender and sharpshooter and has helped the Tar Heels get off to an 8-1 start. Wednesday’s home game with Western Carolina (3-6) is just another one in the normal routine for Williams.

Normal is good for the 6-4, 185-pound junior from Midlothian, Va. He missed the final 14 games of UNC’s championship season with a torn meniscus in his right knee.

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He had surgery last February and then needed a second one in July. Four months later, Williams is back to 100 percent.

“It’s great,” Williams said of his knee. “I’m not even worried about it at this point. I’m doing a little extra rehab, when we have off days, but it feels great. I haven’t had any problems with it.”

Williams has been sharp in the first four weeks of the season. He leads the team in 3-point percentage (52.4) and is tied with Joel Berry for 3-pointers made (19).

His 13.4 scoring average is third-best on the team and he has been singled out by coach Roy Williams regularly as the team’s top perimeter defender.

The junior guard has more than twice as many steals (13) as anyone else on the roster.

There is no doubt to the Tar Heels’ hall-of-fame coach as to why Williams is such a strong defender.

“He wants to be,” the coach said. “That’s all it is, you have to want it badly enough.”

Williams’ improved offensive production has been overshadowed by the giant leap in fellow junior Luke Maye’s scoring numbers (5.5 to 20.8 points per game).

North Carolina’s Kenny Williams (24) drives to the basket against Barton College’s Chris Cook (35) and Jeff Gordon (31) during the first half on October 27, 2017 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

But Williams, who started 22 games last season before the injury in practice in mid-February, averaged 6.2 points in 2016-17.

He came to UNC in 2015 with a reputation as a shooter but was 30.1 percent from behind the line in his first two seasons.

This season, especially in the first half, Williams has been lights out. Through nine games, Williams has made 62.5 percent (15 of 24) of his 3-point attempts in the first half.

“I wanted to be more aggressive on the offensive end and I think I’m doing that,” Williams said. “Aside from not shooting the ball in the second half in a couple of games.”

He made 6-of-8 3s in the first half of UNC’s 96-72 win at Stanford on Nov. 20. The Heels had the game in hand, Williams figured he didn’t need to shoot 3s in the second half, so he didn’t.

In three wins this season – Stanford, Michigan and Tulane – Williams didn’t make a field (or attempt more than one 3) after scoring double-digits in the first half.

“If we win and I score zero points the rest of the season in the second half, I’m fine,” Williams.

Williams’ emergence has been big for the Tar Heels with the loss of Justin Jackson to the NBA and a knee injury, similar to the one Williams suffered last year, to grad transfer Cam Johnson.

Johnson, who made 41.5 percent (78 of 188) of his 3s last season at Pitt, is expected to be back in the lineup before UNC begins ACC play with Wake Forest at the end of this month.

“Cam can shoot the lights out,” Williams said. “I can’t wait for him to get back.”

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio