R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Even as North Carolina’s Kenny Williams struggles to regain the sweet shooting stroke that made him one of the best perimeter shooters in the ACC the last two seasons, he’s finding ways on and off the court to make a difference.
Given that his 3-point shooting percentage has dropped from 40.2% last season to 24.4% so far this season, the instructions Coach Roy Williams gave him heading into the last offseason are even more important.
UNC’s big 103–90 win over then-No. 4 Gonzaga on Saturday night was the sort of game Kenny Williams has produced much of this season.
With only one 3-pointer and nine points, he dished out four assists (and would have had more if the recipients of other passes had converted) and, again, took on a tough defensive assignment.
Williams’ only 3-pointer against Gonzaga came after he slipped a screen and then hit a shot from long range.
In many ways, he’s taken on one of Theo Pinson’s offensive responsibilities: Distributing the ball to make things happen by creating opportunities inside.
It all goes back to Kenny Williams’ conversation with Roy Williams last spring.
“He just told me he wanted me to be more aggressive with the ball, just put in on the ground,” Kenny Williams said.
“He wanted me to get to the free-throw line more and wanted me to drive to the basket more. Not pigeon-holing myself as just a shooter.”
He is getting to the line a little more than last season.
But he got there only once against the Zags.
Clearly, that goal is a work in progress.
“Yeah, a lot of teams are going to come out and not let me shoot the ball as much so it’s just taking advantage of what they give me. Not limiting myself to just doing one thing,” Williams said.
Williams took his coach’s words to heart and is driving to the basket much more than last season.
“It’s something I saw over the summer at pickup. He worked on it a lot and you can see it paying off. I kind of expected it,” graduate student Cameron Johnson said.
The change of mindset may alter the way that defenses deal with Williams because they don’t know what to expect from him.
“Even when shots aren’t falling, he’s aggressive,” Johnson said.
“And when you have a guy that’s aggressive, he attracts the attention of the defense. So, it’s not like if his shot’s not falling, the defense leaves him alone.”
The big difference has come with his assists.
He went from being tied with Luke Maye for fourth on the team in assists last season (2.4 per game) to leading the team this season (4.8) with already more than half the assists he dished out last season.
Three of his top four assist totals in his career have come this season, with a career-high nine against Saint Francis.
“He’s distributing the ball way better,” said Woods, who scored a career-high 14 points against Gonzaga.
“I think he’s showing people that he’s more of a finisher.”
There was no bigger evidence of Williams’ new game than his play with two minutes left, after the Bulldogs had trimmed their deficit to 11.
Coming from the left wing, he blew past a Zags defender, then pitched an underhanded, left-handed pass to fellow senior Luke Maye for a dunk and a 3-point play.
Williams probably celebrated that more than after any play this season.
“That was one of the plays … it puts them away. It buries them,” Williams said.
“We really needed that. They were pressing us and getting turnovers and getting points. So, we needed a good shot and he got the and-1 and finished it.”
Williams also plays a big role on the defensive end, usually assigned to the opponent’s most dangerous backcourt scorer.
After sharing that role some with Pinson last season, it all seems to be on Williams this season.
“It’s what I build myself up to,” Williams said.
“It’s good to be the defensive stopper because it says a lot about how the coaches see me. It’s just part of the job. I just do whatever I can.”
Even more than what Williams has done with his play-making this season, Woods said that Williams has embraced the vocal senior-leadership role that Pinson and Joel Berry filled last season.
“He’s probably the best senior I’ve had since I’ve been here, no disrespect to Joel or Theo,” Woods said.
“He’s the loudest one on the court and the loudest one in the locker room. Always keeping us positive. Kenny wants to win. He’s always trying to hype the guys up. He’s our vocal leader, so a lot of guys try to be like Kenny.”
Johnson has been putting up better numbers than Williams — he made a career-high-tying six 3-pointers and scored 25 points against Gonzaga — but praised Williams’ contribution.
“He’s really attracting attention, he distributes well,” Johnson said.
“He plays good defense and he’s a veteran. He’s a leader, he gets guys going. Whatever the box score shows is not the whole picture. He really contributes a lot to this team.”
Good ball movement gets Kenny Williams a 3 pic.twitter.com/hujMDNIVgX
— Dadgum Box Scores (@dadgumboxscores) November 29, 2018
He’s providing all the intangibles but still hasn’t lived up this season to his original reputation as a dangerous shooter.
He even threw up an airball from 3-point range against the Zags.
“I’m not worried about it,” Williams said.
“Nobody in here’s worried about my shot. They know eventually it will fall. They keep getting me the ball in my spots, the team is confident in me.”
Platek keeps possession alive
Kenny Williams knocks down a 3 pic.twitter.com/EXrT5vm3uL
— Dadgum Box Scores (@dadgumboxscores) November 29, 2018
If they do start falling, a Tar Heels offense that looked torrid, despite 23 turnovers, against Gonzaga will get even better.
That can’t be good news for Carolina’s opponents, including Saturday’s foe in Chicago: Kentucky.
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