Roy Williams utters an iteration of this sentiment seemingly every year.
“I’ve always thought your biggest jump was made from your freshman to your sophomore year,” the North Carolina men’s basketball head coach said at the team’s media day this October.
A season ago, almost verbatim, this maxim was in reference to his hopes for the two then-sophomores Luke Maye and Kenny Williams.
“I always say, I think the biggest jump is from some guys’ freshman year to his sophomore year,” Williams said before the 2016 season. “Whether it’s Joel Berry II last year, I hope it’s the same way for Kenny and Luke this year.”
Coach Williams’ sentiment proved true for Maye’s sophomore year. Maye’s UNC legacy will be eternally linked with his jumper over Kentucky with 0.3 seconds in the Elite Eight. Less than a week later, the NCAA Regional MVP suited up for the Tar Heels as North Carolina pulled away from Gonzaga for the program’s sixth national championship.
Kenny Williams was also there. He was wearing an actual suit. For much of the year he could be seen sitting on the bench in a knee brace, his crutches not too far away as he nursed a torn meniscus in his right knee. This isn’t the story of a sophomore making a jump. Instead, it’s about a now-junior with a large chapter torn out of his story.
Twenty-six games into his sophomore season, Williams was emerging. He was certainly not a star, yet, but his 5-6 shooting performance from beyond the arc against Radford and double-digit scoring performances in close wins against Tennessee, Clemson and Wake Forest were indicative of the progress he was making.
He was the team’s most prominent perimeter defender and had potential to light up the scoreboard from behind the arc.
But after missing his only attempted shot during twenty minutes on the court in a dispiriting 86-78 loss at Duke, Williams still had a lot left to prove. As any good basketball fan knows, though, it’s a long season. And a bad game in February can be erased by one shot in March.
But during practice that week, Williams did something to his knee. Tests revealed a torn meniscus. And like that, his season was over.
He sat by in his suit and watched as UNC beat Duke by seven points on senior night, and then collapsed against Duke just over a week later in the ACC Tournament. He showed up to every game of the NCAA Tournament, as the Tar Heels inched closer and closer to redemption, knowing that he had nothing tangible to contribute on the court.
Then there was the second surgery over the summer, and weeks of waiting for his own chance at redemption. The wait was not without pain, and for that, he first turned to his family.
“On my hard days, I went to them,” Williams said. “Mom and Dad specifically. But everybody else, my brothers and sisters, I have a lot of brothers and sisters, so they all held me in different ways.”
Beyond his family, he looked for something deeper to fill the gap. The injury gave him plenty of time for thinking.
“It just changes my perspective on life,” Williams said. “I mean, I approach every day differently. I don’t wake up and just try to get through days, I wake up and I attack days now just because I have a whole new confidence with God.”
The expectation was that he would be ready for team activities by the fall, but no one wanted to rush him back to the court. As he developed his mental fortitude, he waited patiently for his physical strength to catch up.
He doesn’t remember the exact day that he woke up and realized that there was no longer pain in his knee: “But I know that was probably one of my happiest days in the past eight months.”
On Oct. 2, he was cleared to return to basketball activities.
“And then practice got here and so by that time pretty much I was 100 percent and they just let me go,” Williams said.
After playing limited minutes in the preseason, Williams’ will play a major role in determining the follow-up performance to UNC’s 2017 national championship season — for better or for worse.
As Maye fulfilled Coach Williams’ prophecy with his improvement a season ago, fans are left wondering what could’ve been for the other member of the Tar Heels’ 2019 class. If you ask Kenny himself, he’d say that he is still due.
“I started to make it last year a little bit,” Williams said, “and I think I can make that jump, and an even bigger jump this year.”