Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
Amir Williams knew there was a place for him.
Being part of a vaunted Neumann-Goretti lineup with Division I caliber guards in Robert Wright III (Baylor) and Khaafiq Myers as well as a high caliber big man in Sultan Adewale (Iona) made it a daunting task of finding out where he could fit into the mix. Still, the 6-foot-6 athletic wing was compelled to discover where and how he could be effective and help the Saints remain at the top of the Philadelphia Catholic, where they have been for much of head coach Carl Arrigale’s tenure.
Williams quickly learned his role and it’s one that would elevate him to be mentioned in the same vein as his heralded teammates.
“I feel like I had to find a way,” Williams said. “It came from constant practice and finding the creases in the defense. The corner three is my highest percentage shot, so I tried to find myself there.”
Neumann-Goretti's Amir Williams will play at Hofstra for Speedy Claxton. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL File)
Williams emerged as the Saints primary 3-and-D option playing on the wing and flourishing in the starting lineup so much so that it led to a multitude of Division I programs making trips to South Philadelphia. Delaware, Towson, Wichita State, NJIT, Delaware State, Hampton, St. Joe’s, Drexel, Albany, and Binghamton all showed varying interest at different times, but one program in particular watched him play at Philly Live in June and left a lasting impression.
Speedy Claxton has won 46 games in his first two seasons at Hofstra and the former Philadelphia 76ers first round selection led the Pride to the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) regular season title last year and a spot in the NIT. After finding success recruiting in the area with West Chester Rustin guard Griffin Barrouk, Archbishop Ryan big man Christian Tomasco and Roman Catholic guard Khalil Farmer on the roster, Claxton and assistant coach Mike DePaoli were confident they could find their next piece during one of the biggest recruiting events on the East Coast.
At Philly Live, Williams took the floor without all three of his co-stars as Adewale graduated, Wright transferred to Montverde Academy (Fla.) and Myers was out with an injury. Hofstra’s coaches watched as Williams asserted himself in a way he had not to that point in his career. It was there that they decided to offer him.
Following Philly Live, Hofstra was in constant communication and Williams was drawn into the culture Claxton, a former two-time Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American who scored 2,015 career points at his alma mater, has built there. He took an official visit to the Hempstead campus Sept. 9 and five days later he made it official by announcing his commitment to Claxton and the Pride.
“I liked how together they are,” Williams said. “It feels like a family over there and they made me feel welcome. It was the first college I had seen do that.”
There was a connection at Hofstra as Arrigale knew DePaoli from his days as a graduate assistant with the Pride from 2008-10. Arrigale – with an all-time record 12 Philadelphia Catholic League titles as well as nine PIAA state titles to his name – knew Hofstra was a perfect situation for Williams.
“Hofstra stayed true with him and saw what he could turn into then when they saw him play with us, they knew he was going to be better,” Arrigale said. “They saw how we used him, and it’s similar to how they plan to use him.”
Arrigale felt Williams’ recruitment did not take off to a greater extent during the summer as he made the jump from Team Final, where Wright played, to New Jersey Scholars, where Myers played, at the midway point of the Nike EYBL season.
“The crazy thing was that he had a really uneven AAU season because he played on two different teams and couldn’t really find a role,” Arrigale said. “He got a lot of his looks at Philly Live with us and he was out there doing some things.”
Williams saw limited action as a freshman at N-G then entered the rotation as a sophomore, where he averaged 2.5 points and 2.8 rebounds while hitting 13 three-pointers, as Neumann-Goretti captured the Philadelphia Catholic League and PIAA Class 4A title. With Wright and Myers controlling the ball in the backcourt and Adewale manning the middle, Williams was left to roam free on the wing and in the corner, and occasionally on backdoor cuts for alley-oop dunks.
He averaged 9.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals as a junior as the Saints advanced to the Philadelphia Catholic League and PIAA 4A title games again, this time coming up empty. His best attributes were shooting, where he knocked down 53 three-pointers and shot 43.6% from the field, and face guarding the opposition’s best player, like he did with Lincoln Park’s Meleek Thomas – the No. 5 overall prospect in the Class of 2025, according to Rivals - in the state title game.
His forte in playing as a sophomore was his defense as he utilized his athleticism and length to bother the likes of Roman Catholic’s Daniel Skillings Jr. (Cincinnati), West Catholic’s Zion Stanford (Temple), and Quaker Valley’s Adou Thiero (Kentucky) in the state final.
“I really had to earn it defensively, so that is what I take pride in,” Williams said.
As Wright and Myers drew defenders into the lane, Williams spotted up in the corner and nailed in-rhythm jumpers, a staple of Neumann-Goretti’s offense during Arrigale’s tenure. To think Williams would excel in that role is farfetched when considering shooting was not a strength prior to arriving at Neumann-Goretti.
“I couldn’t shoot at all in eighth grade but now I’m just used to it,” Williams said. “I changed my whole form after my freshman year. My elbows and shoulders became more square to the basket.”
Arrigale has had his fair share of players who burst onto the scene as freshmen such as Ja’Quan Newton or Quade Green, but then there are those like Wali Hepburn and Cameron Young (St. Peter’s) who did not find their place until the latter part of their careers. Arrigale sees Williams in that mold.
‘I’ve been doing this for so long and it’s a maturity thing,” Arrigale said. “Some kids get it when they walk in the door and they’re ready. Other guys need a year or two, and Amir saw that playing major minutes his junior year. Now, he’s ready to take the next step. It’s different for each kid and you enjoy that progress, especially seeing a guy be more vocal.”
He has played the 3-and-D role to perfection over two seasons but the move to a more ball dominant guard will be essential to his development and has the Hofstra staff beaming about what the future holds for him. As Williams described, “they liked my fast-paced style. They liked the shooting and my defense. They liked how I’m not confined to playing one position.” While he has been known as a shooter and elite defender for the better part of two seasons, the feeling is that Williams has not scratched the surface of his potential yet. That bodes well as after his senior season, he will join a roster looking for new faces to enter expanded roles.
The Pride lost back-to-back CAA Player of the Year and leading scorer Aaron Estrada (20.2 ppg), who transferred to Alabama, but will return grad student Tyler Thomas (16.5 pp, 92 three-pointers made) and Darlinstone Dubar (10.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg). Hofstra also returns leading assist man Jaquan Carlos (4.8 apg) and welcomes 7-foot, Ireland native Silas Sunday – a transfer from Iona.
Claxton led Hofstra to at least 13 CAA wins in each of his first two seasons and is hoping to add to that this season. By the time Williams arrives on campus next fall, he should be even more versatile than he is now with a full season in an ever-changing role under his belt.
Arrigale feels that his game will only continue to improve.
“His best basketball is ahead of him,” Arrigale said. “He’s always played with ball dominant guards throughout his career and now he’s starting to come into his own. His game is starting to expand a little bit and he’s growing his game.”
“Last year, he was a 3-and-D guy, hitting a bunch of corner jumpers and guarding the other team’s best guy. He’s a longer perimeter guy but now he’s going to the basket more and making plays for others. He’s really growing his game.”
Williams expressed that “a lot of weight has been taken off my shoulders'' with his decision to play at Hofstra. The prospect of an evolving skillset as he moves into his final high school season has him feeling confident his game remains on its upward trajectory.
“Knowing my best is in front of me, I feel like it’s going to make me go harder,” Williams said. “I haven’t had to prove anything my whole high school basketball career. It’s a chip on my shoulder.”