MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — It only takes one conversation with Jon Williams to realize the senior guard has a future in the coaching profession. The depth of his basketball knowledge and brevity in his analysis extend far beyond his age. The consistency and meticulous attention to detail of his day-to-day approach to life as a Robert Morris basketball player is a blueprint his younger teammates can leverage for success. No wonder Williams has started all 103 games of his college basketball career. One day, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Jon Williams to become Coach Williams.
In fact, that day already came … sort of.
In an unusual situation entirely on par with the rest of 2020, Robert Morris was left without its entire coaching staff for a pair of mid-November practices. As COVID-19 cases began to arise within the program, contact tracing measures forced more than half of the team, including Williams, into mandatory isolation. However, once that group was able to return, another positive case had already sent the rest of the roster, along with the coaching staff, into a separate quarantine of their own. In response, head coach Andy Toole asked Williams to lead practice in his absence.
So for two days, Williams took the reins — running the Colonials through their typical circuits, conditioning and situational drills as if he were Toole. He doubled as half-player/half-coach, abiding by a delicate balance of participating at his usual point guard spot while also knowing when to step aside to observe, give direction and provide feedback. He handled everything himself.
“If I didn’t like the way something was going or needed to make certain points like any other coach, I’d stop practice and correct it,” said WIlliams. “I’ve been in this system for four years, so I know it inside and out. If we weren’t running at the right pace, we’d address it and get back to going hard again.”
Robert Morris films its entire practices to track shooting percentages and collect performance insights, which is a norm across all of Division I basketball. That meant Williams’ coaching debut was on display for his own head coach to see.
“Toole actually told me I did a pretty good job,” he said. “He trusted me. It was pretty fun.”
The pair of practices were a microcosm of Williams’ impact throughout his career at Robert Morris. As Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown once said, “A point guard is there to serve others; to keep them involved and organized.”
Williams has embodied that over the past three seasons, rising through the ranks from a once-timid freshman to the bona fide leader of his team who knows how to effectively communicate with the myriad personality types that comprise a roster.
“He’s been awesome in terms of his ability to communicate to our young guys and his ability to keep everybody locked in,” said Toole. “He has such great rapport with all the guys. He knows how to communicate, knows who he needs to challenge and who he can bring under his wing. He has a great sense that way and has done a great job at it — not that any of our coaches are surprised.
“Jon is certainly the guy everyone looks to for guidance. When it’s all said and done, his impact on this program will far outweigh the statistical goals he will have achieved.”
As it turns out, that “sense” runs in the family. Williams developed it from last season by watching the way his older brother, Josh Williams, maintained steady lines of communication throughout the team during practices, games and times of adversity while leading the Colonials to a Northeast Conference title as a senior.
“That’s one thing Josh did a great job of showing me,” Williams said. “Everyone can’t be coached the same. Sometimes you’ve got to pick your battles. Just as far as being able to talk to guys, being able to encourage them, knowing when to get on them, knowing the right times to stop a play and get control of the huddle. They are all things people don’t really see or understand when it comes to basketball. You can control a game by how your team reacts and responds to you.”
However, this season will require a heightened level of dependability from Williams. Not only is he one of three returning starters and two seniors on the team, he’s also the primary one responsible for filling the shoes of his brother. Josh’s departure left a major void from both a leadership and production standpoint. He led the Colonials in scoring and ended his career as one of the most efficient shooters in program history. In November 2018, he tied the NCAA single-game record for 3-pointers with 15 threes on 25 attempts in a win over Mt. Aloysius. At practice, he was the first one there and the last one to leave. And in the closing seconds of a tie game, best believe he was the one taking the final shot.
Now, those responsibilities will often fall on Jon’s shoulders.
“One thing that I’ve always been able to do is embrace challenges,” he said. “Josh had some really big shoes to fill, but I love the fact that I have the mindset to embrace that challenge and take on that role to try and accomplish things with some new guys — some young guys at that.”
Robert Morris added eight new faces to its roster this year, seven of whom are freshmen. Enoch Cheeks became the first true freshman since Williams to start his first career game in the Colonials’ season opener against Point Park last weekend. Trayden Williams, Cam Ferris and Tyson Brown all have the potential to contribute in Year 1 as well. Even Olisa Ngonadi, now a sophomore, has an opportunity to take a major step forward this season after seeing just 29 minutes of court time as a freshman.
The new recruiting class is one of Toole’s more talented groups in recent memory, but it’s also an indicator of the inexperience he’ll be managing during Robert Morris’ first season in the Horizon League. The Colonials had their fifth game of the season either be canceled or postponed when their game at West Virginia on Dec. 9 was canceled the night before. They do not currently have another game scheduled before entering Horizon League play. In turn, Williams’ presence to help instill the program’s culture within a young team will be all the more critical.
“Every day you have to show up. Every day you have to bring your mind and your attitude that you want to get better every day,” said Williams. “You go through a lot as far as sacrifices, certain adversities, injuries, things of that nature. … It’s all about coming to work every day and getting what you want out of yourself, pushing yourself to certain levels that you didn’t think you could achieve. Once you get in the habit of doing those things, you realize that you see growth in yourself.”
From an on-court perspective, Williams is as unselfish as they come when it pertains to facilitating and getting his teammates involved. However, he’ll need to become a greater scoring threat from the outside to atone for the loss of perimeter shooting without his brother and Sayveon McEwen around. Last season, he shot 39 percent from long range, but his 187 attempts from the field ranked eighth on the team. Being a little more trigger-happy can further space the floor to take pressure off AJ Bramah, Charles Bain and — perhaps most of all — fellow guard Dante Treacy, who is primed for a big season after winning the 2020 NEC Tournament MVP award.
“Me and Jon are meshing pretty well together and communicating a lot more in practice,” said Treacy. “We obviously lost [Josh Williams] from last year, but I think Jon is starting to take that leadership role more seriously. He’s stepping up gigantically and doing a really good job with it. Me and him together, we’re just trying to figure out ways to feed off each other. When one sees the other doing something really well, that boosts both of our energies because we’re constantly trying to compete.”
Williams missed all five of his shot attempts in the win over Point Park, but it wasn’t too much of a cause for concern considering the fact that it was the Colonials’ first live action against another opponent since March. The game marked his 103rd career start in as many outings, which inches him one step closer toward the program’s record for career starts (125) and consecutive games played (121) held by Robert Morris Hall-of-Famer Velton Jones in 2013. Since the Colonials only have 21 games left in their shortened regular season, Williams will have a chance to tie the former and break the latter depending on if he can stay healthy as well as how far the Colonials advance in the Horizon League’s postseason tournament. However, given the state of the pandemic, all bets are off to whether the NCAA will even be able to even get a full season in.
Regardless, being mentioned in the same class as a player of Jones’ stature is an astounding feat in itself — a feat not many former RMU players ever came close to accomplishing.
“To be in the conversation with a guy like Velton, it puts me at a loss for words actually,” said Williams. “I don’t really think about those things. I’m the kind of guy who takes things one day at a time. I’m really an in-the-moment guy because I know how fast things can go and how you can miss out on opportunities if you look too far in the future.
“It’s something I’ll look back on and be really amazed with how I was able to do it.”