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Darren Williams follows local pipeline down to Florida Gulf Coast

05/12/2023, 11:45am EDT
By Antonello Baggi + Josh Verlin

Antonello Baggi (@AntonelloBaggi) +
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Even if Philly will be far away, Darren Williams is going to find some familiar faces in Florida. 

Williams, a junior at Archbishop Ryan, announced his commitment to Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) on Monday. An early-April visit down to the school’s Ft. Myers campus was the clincher, enough for him to end his recruitment well before his senior year begins. And the program’s Philadelphia connections played a huge role. 

Darren Williams (above) committed to Florida Gulf Coast earlier this week. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“It was like a great feeling all around,” Williams said. “Going there, and especially the campus — once you go, once you visit [...] if you know, you know. 

“I like how connected together they all look as a team, they look a lot like a family," he added. “I got a lot of connections with the coaches and trainers that helped me get to where I am at right now. A lot of the coaches are Philly based.”

The coaching staff has Philly ties through and through. It starts with Pat Chambers, the Episcopal grad and former Villanova assistant who spent nine years as Penn State's head coach before taking over at FGCU last spring. Associate head coach Kyle Griffin is a Germantown Academy grad (‘07) who spent four years as an assistant at La Salle before joining Chambers' staff; the video coordinator is Shep Garner, former Roman and Penn State standout, now in the coaching ranks.

The FGCU staff started recruiting Williams last summer and offered him a scholarship in October. Southern Miss, NJIT and Drexel offered as well, among others, but FGCU recruited him the hardest and after the visit, he couldn’t say no. 

“They gave me advice over multiple games they (saw) me play, like helping me out, giving me tips and stuff, what they like,” said Williams, who plays his grassroots ball with K-Low Elite on the Adidas 3SSB circuit. “They see how I also compete and stuff like that, complimented me on the little stuff that don’t get on the stat board and that was gonna get me to the next level.”

WIlliams’ commitment marks the second straight year that the FGCU staff has brought in a local guard; Rahmir Barno arrives on campus this offseason. The Imhotep Charter point guard and Williams live two minutes from each other in Northeast Philly around Roosevelt Boulevard and Bustleton Avenue, and after going up against each other the last two city championship games, are on track to be teammates 12 months from now.

“He talked to me, he hit me up right after I came back from a visit, we talked about when I first got an offer from there, and once I committed I let him know too,” William said. Barno told him about “the coaches, just like how they are [...] how cool they are, how down to earth they are, nothing he told me was nothing that I didn’t see.” 

Another Imhotep Charter product, Dahmir Bishop, averaged 5.9 ppg and 3.1 rpg this season for the Eagles, and will play his final year of college basketball next season. Blaise Vespe, a 6-7 forward who played at Neumann-Goretti, averaged 2.5 ppg in 11 games off the bench as a freshman this past season.

Williams (above) skies for a layup in game last December. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Archbishop Ryan head coach Joe Zeglinski shares the same regard for Williams as the FGCU coaching staff.

"I think it’s a great spot for him, there are guys that I am familiar with [...] they have a great coaching staff," Zeglinski said. “They're gonna take care of Darren. [...] The way they are gonna play, I think they're gonna be really good in the next few years and I think Darren will fit right in.”

The Eagles’ program gained national notice in 2013, when Andy Enfield led ‘Dunk City’ to become the first No. 15 seed to ever make the Sweet 16, launching him up into the high-major ranks at Southern Cal. They made it back to March Madness in 2016 and 2017 under Joe Dooley, who led for East Carolina in 2018; Michael Fly was in charge for four seasons before his 2022 dismissal, despite having won 22 games that year.

Chambers, who hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since his second year at Boston University (2010-11), led FGCU to a 17-15 season in his first year, going 7-11 in the Atlantic Sun Conference. His squad wasn’t afraid to fire away from deep, taking 44.9% of their shots from beyond the arc (24th nationally, per KenPom), with three different players all taking more than 100 3s and making more than 36% from deep.

“I like their style of play,” Williams said. “(Chambers) e lets them play loose, not like they have to run everything in a strict set, they still share the ball with each other but they are able to go to it as well, so that’s what I liked the most when I watched.”

Zeglinski believes that his style of play and his work ethic are a great fit for the way FGCU plays. 

“He reminds me a lot of Izaiah,” Zeglinski said. Izaiah Brockington played for Archbishop Ryan from 2013-2017 and scored a program-record 1,292 points. After playing at Penn State and Iowa State in college, Brockington’s professional basketball career is just getting started. 

“Just his work ethic and he is in the gym everyday [...] no one is gonna outwork Darren,” Zeglinski continued. “He is a great scorer at all three levels, and defensively I don’t know if there’s a better guard in the PCL guarding on the ball. I think (their) coaches are getting a great player and a great kid.”

Darren Williams (above) helped Archbishop Ryan into the state semifinals as a junior. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Williams agreed with Zeglinski on his defensive skills. 

“I take pride in defense, you gotta come down to get a stop,” he said. “Every night when we got a game I always wanna have the best player in front of me [...] I wanna take on that challenge [...] that’s what wins championships: defense, offense always come later.”

This year, Williams was once again one of the leaders of the team that helped Archbishop Ryan finish the season with an overall record of 17-11 (10-3 PCL). Their Catholic League run ended against West Catholic in the PCL quarterfinals and their season in the PIAA semifinals, falling to Imhotep Charter.

A lefty who can score at all three levels and has shown a particular capability in step-back contested 3s, Williams ended the season with 16.4 points a game, led the team in steals and had a team-high 81 3’s. He was named First Team All-PIAA Class 5A for his efforts. 

Williams said that the season wasn’t as successful as they wanted but it was a good learning process. Williams and teammate Thomas Sorber, a 6-9 forward with offers from Villanova, Oregon, Miami and Georgetown will try to get their revenge and bring home the championship for their senior season. 

This summer he will be working on using his body more when attacking the paint, finding his teammates more and taking the best shot each possession without forcing. While he tries to bring the title to Ryan next season and work on his game, Williams is excited to be part of Dunk City and will definitely try to end the program’s seven-year NCAA drought.

“Even though I could’ve gotten something higher,” he said, “(FGCU was) the best situation for me, regardless of playing time, the best thing for me — or where I’m gonna get better, most importantly.”

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