- After initially committing to play his college basketball at VCU, Kenny Williams saw his life shift following Shaka Smart's departure to Texas. But it was all part of a greater plan for the now-senior guard at UNC.
Everything happens for a reason. That’s the way Kenny Williams views it all. Following a stellar career at Lloyd C. Bird High School in Chesterfield, Va., he was all set to play his college basketball at Virginia Commonwealth University, led by then-head coach Shaka Smart. He would be home, in front of family and friends, giving all his peers the opportunity to come watch him perform on a consistent basis.
VCU is 15 minutes from where he was raised, and the Rams were just a few years removed from an improbable Final Four run that provided a breath of fresh air throughout the city of Richmond. It all seemed to make sense.
Smart had become known for his recruiting prowess, as several players made their way to the NBA under the intensified coach from Madison, Wisc. Troy Daniels (Phoenix Suns) and Treveon Graham (Brooklyn Nets) were both under his recruiting tree, as was pesky point guard Briante Weber, who has had stints with a number of NBA teams.
So Williams felt comfortable with his decision, even though the University of North Carolina—as well as a slew of Power 5 conference schools, like Indiana, Georgetown, Virginia Tech and Minnesota—had a full ride waiting on the table.
“Coach Smart was a huge reason,” Williams said. “He cared about the players so much. They had to do push-ups one day in practice when I was there, and he and all the assistants actually got down and did push-ups with them. That really stuck with me during the recruiting process.”
Williams chose VCU heading into his senior year of high school. Then rumors started to heat up about Smart capitalizing off his success and getting a promotion, if you will, to a bigger basketball program.
Suddenly, in April 2015, news broke that Smart would be taking the job at the University of Texas, leaving behind a VCU team that he led to five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 2011–15.
In that instance, Williams’s life immediately changed.
“I didn’t talk to him until after they reported it,” Williams said. “I still remember that night vividly. I was in my room when the news broke. I had ESPN, SportsCenter on my TV, and then he called and told me what had just happened.
“Honestly it hurt, because I thought I had everything figured out. I felt so great committing the first time. You look forward to that day your whole life, and it just seemed like everything had shattered, everything was broken, and I was hurt. There was no communication from him before—I found out when everybody else found out.”
Williams grew up a huge fan of the Tar Heels, a team that featured players who went on to be NBA greats, like Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Vince Carter and Rasheed Wallace, to name a few.
So roughly one month following Smart’s departure from VCU, Williams announced his commitment to North Carolina. And the timing couldn’t have been better.
As a freshman, Williams didn’t see the court much. He was behind Marcus Paige, a sharpshooting star in the baby blue and white and who was averaging over 30 minutes per game, on the depth chart.
“That was one of the hardest years of my life,” said Williams. “Everybody knows who Marcus Paige is, so it wasn’t a negative at all. I was working with him everyday. Just watching him and guarding him, I think that’s a big reason why I’m able to play defense the way I play today. It was a learning experience; it definitely humbled me. But I wouldn’t be the player or person I am today without that year.”
UNC advanced to the national championship game that season, where it met Villanova for all the marbles. In one of the more entertaining title games in memory, Paige hit a miraculous shot in the final moments to tie things up at 74 with 4.7 seconds remaining. Williams was one of the first players off the Tar Heels’ bench to rush the court and congratulate Paige following a Villanova timeout.
Then Kris Jenkins famously nailed a deep three as time expired to seal the championship for the Wildcats, leaving UNC in total shock.
“We all knew if that game would’ve went to overtime, we would’ve won,” says Williams.
The Tar Heels wouldn’t forget that feeling, though. They entered Williams’s sophomore season fueled by the loss and kept that sour taste in their mouths. He’d become a day-one starter alongside Joel Berry in the backcourt, and his ability to knock down open shots and defend on the wing made him the ultimate three-and-D player, which is beyond valuable in today’s game.
But after starting 22 contests that year, his season abruptly came to an end due to a right knee injury just a few weeks before the NCAA tournament. Williams was only able to cheer his teammates on as they made a second straight run to the national title game, this time against Gonzaga.
The Tar Heels wouldn’t let the opportunity slip between their fingers this time around. They topped the Bulldogs, capturing the third championship in Roy Williams’s career.
Williams wasn’t available to play that night due to his injury, but he was proud to see his team accomplish the ultimate goal.
“It was everybody on one mission, focused on one thing,” he said. “You don’t realize how hard it is to get to a national championship, and to be able to do it two years in a row and win it the second time, I think it says a lot about that team.”
Williams returned as a junior and had his best statistical season, averaging 11.4 points on 49% shooting (40% from three). The Tar Heels suffered an early tournament exit, though, falling to Texas A&M in the Round of 32.
His numbers have dipped a bit this season, but UNC is once again stacked with talent and gearing up for another deep run. Winners of 13 of their last 14 games, the Tar Heels have begun to put it all together as the madness starts to pick up in March.
Cameron Johnson, the senior who transferred from Pittsburgh in 2017, leads the team in scoring at 16.9 points per game, but freshman point guard Coby White is the one who steers the ship for UNC.
White has North Carolina playing at a frenetic pace, keeping opposing defenses on their heels. Even his teammates have to adjust their games to keep up with the swift point guard from Goldsboro, N.C.
“He just brings a different dynamic to the team,” Williams says. “And I’ve never had a point guard I’ve had to speed up for. Coby is pedal to the metal for 40 minutes.”
Luke Maye, a senior himself, joins Williams as the only two players on the roster who have a chance to advance to a third national championship game. Maye has been Mr. Consistency for UNC, currently averaging a double double for the second straight season. He was dominant in a statement victory over Duke on Feb. 20, scoring 30 points and pulling down 15 boards in an 88–72 win.
Duke star Zion Williamson left that game in the first 30 seconds after ripping through his Nikes and suffering a sprained knee. He hasn’t played since, which has shifted the momentum in the ACC—and in college basketball as a whole.
“I think teams are starting to notice us more,” says Williams. “Since that injury, we’re starting to command more attention from people on the outside.”
As the Tar Heels prepare to face the Blue Devils in the regular-season finale on Saturday, Williamson has been ruled doubtful to play by coach Mike Krzyzewski. But according to Williams, that’s the least of the team’s concerns.
“Of course we want to play against him, because of who he is … he’s a great player,” he said. “But I’m not worried about what they’re doing over there, what they’re talking about, what their plan is. All I’m worried about is our team.”
Duke-North Carolina is arguably the biggest rivalry in all of sports. So whether Williamson plays or not, there won’t be a lack of hype.
As for Williams, he has no reason to worry at all. Everything has strategically worked out in his favor. He doesn't live in the spotlight, but his effectiveness on both ends of the court can't go unnoticed. The well-spoken senior has become a vocal leader for the Tar Heels over the years. And there’s no denying his love for the game when witnessing the passion he displays.
Though VCU initially felt like the right choice, he’s had the chance to play for an esteemed UNC program—something he always envisioned as a child.
“It’s amazing what God can do,” Williams said. “He had a different plan for my life, and it was so much better than what I had for myself. These four years that I’ve been here is nothing I would trade at all.”