Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
Justice Williams needed to change his game but he was not sure what the next step was. Playing in the highly competitive Philadelphia Catholic League, the versatile guard was making a name for himself as one of the premiere scorers going against some of the state’s best talent. Still, his offensive prowess was only going to take him so far.
After the COVID-19 pandemic put an early end to his sophomore season and Roman Catholic’s run at the PIAA Class 6A title, he chose to follow teammate Jalen Duren to Montverde Academy (Fla.), the school where head coach Kevin Boyle has developed the likes of Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, RJ Barrett and Cade Cunningham, who was picked No. 1 overall by the Detroit Pistons in this year’s NBA Draft.
Justice Williams helped Team Final 17U win the Peach Jam title this summer. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
He went from being the leading scorer on the Cahillites to a more reserve role for Eagles. He showed flashes, but it was in practice where he learned what he needed to do if he wanted to excel at the next level. He found ways to improve the weaker parts of his game.
“Being at Montverde, there were 10 of us and we had to find a way onto the court,” Williams said. “Defense made things easier for everyone else and became a staple for us. I learned that defense certainly helps my offense, for sure. I’ve matured that way.”
That understanding and evolution put him on the radar of several high-profile Division I programs including head coach Will Wade and Louisiana State University. Following a visit during the weekend of June 11-13, Williams had seen enough and decided to commit to the Tigers on June 17.
The 6-foot-4, 175-pound guard has one of the smoothest games in the class of 2022 and he’s heading to a program that has boasted high-scoring backcourt players like Cameron Thomas (Brooklyn Nets), Skylar Mays (Atlanta Hawks) and Tremont Waters (Boston Celtics) in recent years.
“One of the strengths in my game is scoring,” Williams said. “LSU is a good offensive team and that will allow me to showcase my abilities. Also, I think my play-making is very underrated. Having a balance of both along with defense will allow me to play my game, as Coach Wade said.”
Williams had set visits to Auburn, Purdue, UConn and Memphis, in addition to his LSU visit, but he did not go through with any of them after touring the Baton Rouge campus.
“UConn was definitely close at the end but it came down to fit,” Williams said. He also boasted offers from Alabama, Florida, Georgetown, Maryland, Michigan, Penn State and Miami (Fla.), where former Roman Catholic assistant coach DJ Irving was hired to be a part of Jim Larrañaga’s staff.
He made his decision with the idea that it would be out of his mind in time to prepare for his senior season, where he has yet to decide where he will play.
“For me and my family, it gave us a chance to relax and breathe going into my senior year,” Williams said. “I learned a lot about the process and wanted to ensure I was ready for Peach Jam. Everything else is in front of me now.”
Alongside Duren, who will announce his decision on Friday, UConn commit Corey Floyd, Westtown’s Jameel Brown and 7-foot-1 big man Dereck Lively II, Otega Oweh and Jaheim Bethea, Williams was a crucial piece of the Team Final 17U team that downed Brad Beal Elite, 64-61 to win the 2021 Nike EYBL Peach Jam title in North Augusta (Ga.).
Williams averaged 9.5 points per game on the EYBL circuit this season but missed the final four games of Peach Jam due to COVID-19 contact tracing. He had 15 points and seven rebounds in his final game against D.J. Wagner, the top ranked player in the class of 2023, Aaron Bradshaw and New Jersey Scholars on July 23. Williams was instant offense for Team Final, coming off the bench and filling up the stat sheet on a nightly basis.
From his smooth jumper to his nifty ability to get around defenders with his length to his sneaky explosion off the bounce, Williams has developed into a player that fits the mold of a Will Wade guard.
“I definitely do practice it but it’s instinctual for me,” Williams said. “It’s natural to do it. I get in there, go up, watch the defender react and try to score. I feel it’s just natural for me.”
He and Duren began their careers at Roman Catholic, under the direction of then-head coach Matt Griffin, now an assistant at the University of Albany. Duren was a starter as a freshman while Williams came off the bench on a team that boasted Lynn Greer III (Dayton), Seth Lundy (Penn State) and Hakim Hart (Maryland). That team cruised to the Philadelphia Catholic League title and a trip to the PIAA 6A quarterfinals.
As a sophomore, he averaged 18.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists in leading the Cahillites back to the league title game before falling to Neumann-Goretti. That year his scoring ability shown through, as evidenced by his 32-point performance in a double-overtime loss to Archbishop Wood.
Team Final 17U head coach James Johns, now an assistant at Fairfield, has coached Williams for years and stresses that the biggest thing for Williams to improve was to have his voice be heard.
“Justice is a student of the game so he questions everything,” Johns said after the team won Peach Jam. “All my point guards like Trevon Duval and Quade Green were vocal and more alpha-type personalities. I challenged him on the floor to keep up with me and show me what he sees on the floor. By the time we got to Peach Jam, he would start saying, ‘Why don’t we run this,’ or ‘How about we do this?’ Once he started to communicate, he saw what I wanted and I started to see what he sees.”
As a junior, Williams was part of a Montverde Academy team that finished the season with a 24-1 record and the GEICO Nationals title, the fifth crown in program history. The Eagles were led by Duren, Caleb Houstan (Michigan), Langston Love (Baylor), DaRon Holmes (Dayton) and Ryan Nembhard (Creighton). Other contributors include Dariq Whitehead, who recently committed to Duke, and Jalen Hood-Schifino, another high major prospect.
Peach Jam was the highlight of Williams’ summer but he also competed in the Pangos All-American Camp in Los Angeles. He was joined by Lively, Duren, Oweh and Floyd, among a host of other prep school standouts. Williams grew up with these guys and won a Peach Jam crown with them, which means everything as they all prepare for the next stage in their playing careers.
“Seeing everyone be able to achieve their dreams is exciting,” Williams said. “I’m a part of that and it’s motivating because we accomplished our goals with each other. To see that, mature in our games and get scholarships is good. We’ve all won together.”
Johns, who oversaw that Team Final team, feels Williams has the potential to be more than simply a role player for LSU and that upside will take him far in his career.
“If you look at our box scores at Peach Jam, he kept lowering his turnovers,” Johns said. “Once he physically evolves on the floor, he’s going to take his game to the next level because there’s nothing he can’t do out on the floor. Justice has a chance to be a legit NBA player.”
LSU is coming off a 19-10 (11-6 Southeastern Conference) season that included a trip to the conference tournament championship game and a win over St. Bonaventure to open the NCAA Tournament. Williams becomes the second 2022 commit for the Tigers, joining 6-8 Terry High School (Miss.) forward Devin Ree.
Williams found a fit with Roman Catholic then another with Montverde Academy. LSU was his ideal fit after his visit and that self-awareness has been the key to his success on the court.
“The fit is something that you really have to look into,” Williams said. “You have to fit into the system because the coaches never change the system. You need to find a way to help your team and be able to get better for the next level.”