Nigel Williams-Goss wanted a plan. Not the vague “we’ll make you better” promises that were part of coaches’ pitches to get him to transfer to their school, but a detailed road map for how he’d improve his game, pile up wins and reach a Final Four. “I’m an A + B = C person,” says the junior point guard, who after the 2015 season had been granted his release from Washington and was deciding where he should go next.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few had a plan for Williams-Goss that spring. But Williams-Goss wasn’t interested in hearing it at first, telling Few he’d developed better relationships with other coaches. Few pushed back. “You went through that process the first time, wanting the coach to be your best friend,” Few said. “I ain’t gonna be your best friend. I’m gonna coach you up, we’re gonna have a healthy dose of respect for each other and we’re gonna develop you.”
Few and assistant Brian Michelson then met with Williams-Goss at his home in Las Vegas and presented an exhaustive breakdown of everything the Zags would do for him, from what his redshirt year would focus on to how their conditioning program would change his body to how he’d assimilate academically with his double major in psychology and communications. The coaches also shared their scouting reports on other teams, pages of offensive and defensive tendencies and how to attack them. A basketball junkie known for taking detailed notes while watching film, Williams-Goss was downright giddy. “Kid on Christmas morning doesn’t describe it,” says his father, Virgil.
In that moment, Nigel flashed back to spring 2009, when, as an eighth grader who lived in the Portland, Ore., suburb Happy Valley, he decided he wanted to explore Findlay Prep. A powerhouse in boys high school basketball, Findlay was in the process of transitioning from prep school to fully accredited high school. Though Nigel had a legitimate shot to break Kevin Love’s Oregon high school scoring record had he stayed home, he figured that grinding every day against the country’s top competition would make the transition to college easier. His mother, Valerie, agreed the family could consider relocating once she was assured Findlay was no academic cakewalk. Nigel had been immersed in a Mandarin-speaking program at his Oregon middle school, and carried a 4.0 GPA, and she wanted him to continue with a rigorous education.
On a recruiting trip to Findlay that spring, Nigel called his father, Virgil, during a 5 a.m. trek to the gym. “Dad, oh my gosh, I’m so excited!” Nigel whispered into Virgil’s voicemail. “It’s dark, and we’re walking to the gym to go shoot. This team is working how I work!”
“When Gonzaga came to my house, that was a real similar moment,” recalls the 6' 3" point guard who will lead top-seeded Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament. “There was no doubt. In that moment it was just like, this is it, this is the spot for me.”
Williams-Goss has filled a huge void for Gonzaga this season, which lost two-thirds of its starting backcourt to graduation. Not only did Williams-Goss, the West Coast Conference player of the year, average a team-high 16.3 points for the No. 4 Zags (32–1), the top seed in the West Region, but he also excels in Gonzaga’s ball screen heavy offense, where his calculating, analytical mind helps him attack the rim or dish to teammates (153 assists to just 68 turnovers this season). He’s also the Zags’ best rebounding guard (5.7 per game) and typically defends opposing teams’ best perimeter players, a testament to his ability to memorize scouting reports. After Gonzaga stumbled in its regular season finale at home against BYU, ruining its chances at a perfect regular season, Williams-Goss has the Zags well-positioned for the first Final Four in school history.
“[Williams-Goss] was always a capable shooter, but now he’s much better,” says Arizona coach Sean Miller, who faced Williams-Goss twice when he was with Washington. “You add that element to the cast he plays with, and it’s the perfect storm: They have a lot of talented, experienced players and, no question, he is the engine that can make it go.”
The standout from Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., had a plan when he arrived in Seattle: Help the Huskies end their two-year NCAA tournament drought and turn pro after his sophomore season. That plan went awry.
In what Washington coach Lorenzo Romar has termed a “dysfunctional” stretch for the program, nine players and four members of the coaching staff left over a three-year period, culminating in a 16–15 finish when Williams-Goss was a sophomore, in 2014–15. A + B equaled mediocrity, and Williams-Goss felt he needed to make a change. “Obviously playing for a Pac-12 program, having a big football team and a lot of great facilities, that’s fun,” says Williams-Goss, who maintains a good relationship with his former coach and credits Romar for being instrumental in his development. “But our facilities didn’t put a smile on my face when we weren’t winning games.”
No program in the country has used the mid-career redshirt with as much success as Gonzaga. Former All-Americas Kelly Olynyk and Kyle Wiltjer dramatically changed their bodies and saw significant growth in their games after their seasons off. During his redshirt year in Spokane, Williams-Goss did not drastically trim his body fat—it’s always hovered around 4%—but he added about 10 pounds of muscle, a difference he feels every time he drives to the rim. He also changed his shot. After hours of film study, Williams-Goss realized that his sophomore year at Washington he often let the ball drift in front of his head instead of holding it slightly off to the right for a perfect shot line (wrist-elbow-knee connected by an invisible string). This season he’s improved his shooting to 50.9% (from 44.2% in 2014–15), as well as his accuracy from beyond the arc (36.3%, up from 25.6%) and at the line (90.9%, up from 76.3%).
William-Goss’s ability to analyze, process and memorize information is both good and bad. He admits he can get in his own head, a problem that plagued him his sophomore year at UW. A film junkie, Williams-Goss has the Gonzaga video director email him film of opponents two to three days before the game so he can take detailed notes—his own scouting report—on his phone. But the beauty of Gonzaga and Few, he says, is that coaches have done all the analysis for him, and present it to the players in a clear, simple way. “The prep we do takes a load off you,” he says. “So many times I knew the other team was going to go under a ball screen, so I knew I was shooting a three before I even let it go.”
Williams-Goss studies other teams, but with a purpose. After the Zags entered the preseason No. 14, he watched only the 13 higher-ranked teams to understand what it would take to be No. 1. His list quickly got shorter: after a school-record 22–0 start, Gonzaga, during the final week of January, reached the top spot for the first time since the 2012–13 season.
It’s no surprise that Williams-Goss is a planner, given his parents’ goal-setting throughout his life. Nigel was a nursing baby when Valerie was finishing her masters in psychology at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. in the mid-1990s. She’d take Nigel along to night classes and volunteer shifts at a women’s crisis center. Sometimes on her way to work she’d drive to the bus stop to hand Nigel off to Virgil, a mortgage broker, who would ride home with a baby in one hand and a pizza for dinner in the other. On the weekends the family, then living in a lower-income section of northeast Portland, drove around the affluent suburb of Happy Valley, plotting a way to buy in that area so Nigel could attend some of the best schools in the state. Virgil, a retired Air Force staff sergeant who played semipro in England for two years, coached his son’s youth basketball teams and before every game encouraged the players to write their goals on index cards, which they read aloud before tip-off.
Everything Nigel does needs a purpose. Many college athletes use off days to binge watch the latest Netflix hit. Nigel can’t join his teammates in this —Vampire Diaries is a favorite of the Zags—because he’s bothered by the thought that getting ahead in homework would be much more valuable. (It’s this type of classroom commitment that led to him being the first Academic All-America in Washington basketball history, an honor he repeated at Gonzaga this season after graduating in December with a 3.84 GPA and degree in psychology. He’s already started on a master’s in organizational leadership.) He does not believe in “going to the gym to shoot around.” He wants a specific workout with a specific goal, and he wants to chart his progress.
That attitude drove him to finish his Findlay career as a McDonald’s All-American, though midway through his freshman year he says staying back in Oregon and breaking Love’s record “sounded better than sitting on the bench.” The lone freshman on a team loaded with Division-I bound juniors and seniors like Jabari Brown, Nick Johnson, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, Williams-Goss cried on the drive home from almost every game, frustrated he wasn’t playing.
Virgil told his son this would ultimately make him a better leader, because he’d be able to relate to everyone, not just the superstars. But Nigel couldn’t handle waiting. That off-season, he devised a plan with Virgil to run two miles every morning at the track with a weighted vest, then alternate 100- and 200-yard sprints with jogging. He climbed stairs with a medicine ball, too, determined to show up to his first official practice in unbelievable shape. The plan worked. Originally slated to be a role player again, Nigel started as a sophomore at Findlay. He was the first four-year player in Findlay history.
Nigel liked that planning ahead meant good results, so he’s spent every off-season doing exactly that. In the summer of 2013, before he enrolled at Washington, he collected game film of Pac-12 guards T.J. McConnell (Arizona) and Jahid Carson (ASU). He wanted to get a jump on scouting reports.
His attitude has rubbed off on other members of the family. Nigel is closest to his maternal grandmother, Barbara Hingston, whom he calls “my favorite person in the world.” When Nigel moved to Findlay, Hingston couldn’t bear to be away from him, so she made a plan of her own. She spent the next four years as a snow bunny, leaving Oregon’s cold, rainy climate every November for the warm, dry temperatures in Vegas. She’d stay until basketball was over. And two years ago, when she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and told she had just six months to live, Nigel told her their plan was all positivity, all the time. The 78-year-old Hingston takes Nigel’s words to heart as she takes the 40 pills a day for treatment and pain. “She’s hanging on,” Valerie says, “to watch him play.”
Of course, Williams-Goss has a plan beyond Gonzaga. The NBA will come soon enough and with that, a platform to show other children of color—Williams-Goss identifies as biracial—that you don’t have to fit into a box. That it’s possible to be the closet nerd who loves discussing Harry Potter with your grandma and a gym rat with a smooth jump shot. “I think a lot of people buy into stereotypes and believe certain things aren’t for them,” he says. “I want to go into public speaking someday because I know that a lot of times, people don’t succeed because they’ve never seen someone who looks like them tell them they can do it.”
With one season of eligibility remaining, Williams-Goss hasn’t decided if he’ll go pro early. That decision will be at least partially based on what the Zags do this postseason. They have reached the Elite Eight twice since 1999, but never the Final Four. During his redshirt year, Williams-Goss typed some goals on his phone, then took a picture and made that list his screenshot. Every day he read them: WCC championship. WCC player of the year. Final Four. NCAA championship.
This season in Spokane has given him the A + B that he so deeply craved. Now he needs to complete the equation.