It’s hard to believe that Keith Williams wasn’t a starter to open the season for the Cincinnati Bearcats. It made sense at the time. The sophomore wing saw diminished playing time down the stretch as a freshman and was outworked for a role as a key reserve by Trevor Moore. Entering this season, Williams was going to get more of a chance, but the odds were that he was still a year away from becoming a big-time contributor, assuming he would ever get there at all.
On opening night against Ohio State, it certainly didn’t appear that he was on his way to proving that notion wrong. Williams played a little more than 13 minutes and he scored all of four points on 1-of-6 shooting. The Bearcats also lost, causing Mick Cronin to take a look at his roster and make a change. Surprisingly, despite such a tough first night, Williams was penciled into the starting lineup in the next game against NC Central, replacing senior Cane Broome. His name should be written in Sharpie now.
If anyone was unsure of how Williams would respond to his first career start, their concerns were washed away in a 15-point effort that included four rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals across 26 minutes. Naysayers might have chalked that effort up to the lower degree of difficulty against the Eagles, but in the nine games since the opening night loss, Williams has averaged 11.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor. In addition, and more importantly, the Bearcats have won all nine of those contests, including a 62-47 victory against arch rival Xavier on Saturday.
Nine games may still be a ludicrously small sample size, but after Williams poured in 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting against the Musketeers, what he is doing can no longer be ignored or just blamed on a lack of difficult competition.
Williams was recruited for his offensive prowess and his largest leap has been in that area this season. Jarron Cumberland is far and away the primary scoring threat on the roster, but Williams is filling in nicely as the No. 2 option on the perimeter. He ranks third on the team in scoring (10.7 PPG), but that’s only because of that opening night struggle. His ability to finish around the rim and make shots in the mid-range are his primary means of getting buckets. He is shooting 54.5 percent on two-point tries and has the hops to play above the rim as well.
He is also a perfect fit as a starter not just because he takes pressure off of Cumberland as a source of scoring. He is also not afraid to handle the ball and give Cumberland a bit of a break in that area as well. While he isn’t a standout playmaker in terms of assists, Williams is second on the team in usage (25.3 percent) and as he develops, if his passing gets better, he will be an even more important contributor. You just have to look at Cumberland to see that such a step forward is possible, as the former score-only player has added distributing to his bag of tricks this season.
In addition to passing, Williams could use some work on his three-point and foul shooting, which are dragging down some of his metrics and is why he is only sixth on the team in offensive rating. While those are weak points that could be exploited by a stronger defensive team, the fact that Williams can still get better makes what he’s doing right now that much more exciting.
Now we’ve talked a lot about Williams’ offense, but Cronin might not be relying on him so much if he didn’t also play defense. That hasn’t been an issue at all for Williams, who has great length and uses that to his advantage. For a guy who does most of his defending on guards and stretch forwards, Williams is a pretty solid shot-blocker, ranking third on the team in block rate (4.8 percent). He is also third in steal rate (3.2 percent) and he’s not just selling out in order to pump up counting stats. Williams can lock up shooters and make life miserable for ball-handlers, with an 87.5 defensive rating and the second-most defensive win shares on the team (0.7), trailing only Trevon Scott (0.9), who is having a breakout season of his own. The difference is, Scott was already an important rotational player and began the year as a starter. Williams has gone from someone we weren’t sure about to a certified star. It’s only going to get better — if that’s possible — from here.