Drexel's Austin Williams (above) should be the Dragons' featured big man as a senior. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
At some point during the 2015-16 season -- he can’t remember exactly when -- Austin Williams let the frustration get to him. In the Drexel locker room, after a practice, the sophomore forward who was known for being one of the more reserved players in the locker room lashed out at head coach Bruiser Flint.
Williams was frustrated that he’d spent the majority of his first two seasons riding the Drexel bench, appearing in just 18 games as a sophomore for an average of 7.3 minutes/game, on a team that was in the middle of a program-worst six-win season.
And though he didn’t lose his mind completely, Williams certainly gave his coach a piece of it.
“It was the only time I lashed out or anything,” the Dragons’ now-senior big man said last week before practice. “The two years just built up.
“But I’m good now,” the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Richmond (Va.) native added.
He has to be, at least if Drexel wants to finally drag itself out of the Colonial Athletic Association basement after winning just three league games each of the last two seasons.
Last season was certainly one of change for the Drexel basketball program. Flint was fired after 15 seasons, the administration opting for a fresh start after a 2013 CAA championship game appearance was followed by four years of mediocrity helped along by an unlucky run of injuries and the transfer of the program’s star player (Damion Lee) transferring to Louisville. Army head coach Zach Spiker came in, promising to completely change the Dragons’ style from Flint’s plodding, grind-it-out approach to a run-and-gun, high-octane system.
Going from one of the slowest offenses in the country to attempting to be one of its quickest was quick the shock to the system of the entire Drexel roster, but especially the big men.
“First two workouts, you could tell that’s what [Spiker] wanted,” Williams said. “When me and Rodney [Williams] were doing workouts, we’d get the ball, go ball screen, go, kick to the shooter, get back on defense. It hit me [hard]...definitely had to be in shape.”
Austin Williams adjusted well enough to earn an opening-night starting bid alongside Rodney Williams (no relation), who led the Dragons in scoring and rebounding last year as a senior. Austin ended up starting 28 games, averaging 7.1 ppg and 6.3 rpg while hitting 61.6 percent of his shots.
After struggling to throw together any sort of production for two years, it was a relief just for Williams to show he could perform at the Division I level, though on a team that won just nine games.
“I wouldn’t say it was surprising, because I knew what I was capable of,” he said. “But it felt good...because it was difficult, the first two years it was difficult. But it wasn’t anything with the coaching or anything, I was just trying to get the feel (for college). I have a lot of respect for Bru, he taught me a lot of things I use today.”
Now, with one more year left in college, Williams -- also known as “Stretch” -- is almost certainly slated to be the Dragons’ full-time starter in the middle of its four-out offense. And he’ll do so for a team that’s got hopes of taking a step or two up the CAA ladder, but his progression will be one of the keys to them doing so.
“We want Austin Williams to take the same big step that Rodney took,” Spiker said, referring to last year’s senior leading the team in both scoring and rebounding. “Rodney took a big step from junior to senior year, Stretch took a big step from sophomore to junior, we’d like to see Stretch take just as big or a bigger step from junior to senior. A of of it has to do with foul trouble, staying on the floor.”
Indeed, fouls were Williams’ biggest issue last season, and have been throughout his college years -- a major reason he was riding the pine so much during that frustrating second year.
In limited minutes as a sophomore, Williams was on pace to average 8.5 fouls every 40 minutes; he cut into that number slightly as a junior, but still averaged 3.6/game (6.6/40 minutes).
If he can avoid the whistles, Williams has the tools to be a productive big man in the CAA.
“He’s pretty good at offensive rebounds and in there we can throw the ball to him, and really his touch around the rim I think is as good as any big we had last year, including Rodney,” Spiker said. “So if we get Stretch the ball in the right spots, I think he could be successful.”
As a senior, Williams also gets to try out a role he hasn’t had a chance to be in yet: mentor.
For each of his first three years, he and fellow senior big man Tyshawn Myles, a reserve on the Dragons’ roster, had been the younger forwards on the roster, under Rodney Williams and Mohamed Bah.
Now, with two freshmen forwards on the roster in Timmy Perry Jr. and Jarvis Doles plus a pair of sophomores transfers in Alihan Demir and James Butler, Myles and Williams have suddenly become the elders in a group of young bigs.
“I was talking to Ty, the first day we got here we were always the second group under Rod and Mo-Mo, and now the roles are reserved,” he said. “It feels good, got guys coming to us, asking us questions, we’ve got answers for them, helping them out.
“They’re going to be here for four years, we’re just trying to make their journey a little easier, a little smoother.”