Junior Shelden Williams, the Blue Devils’ 6-foot-9, 250-pound center is arguably the most unmistakable basketball player at Duke. Despite their familiarity with his appearance, however, few fans know that Williams was first a baseball, football and soccer player before falling in love with basketball, that he is an especially reserved person and that every summer he used to fish with his father Bob and brother Quincy.
“One of the funniest stories is once my brother caught a fish, and he was going to put his hand on it and he wasn’t expecting it to move, and he got scared and threw the whole [pole] into the lake,” Williams said. “But ever since basketball has taken over I’ve had less and less time to fish.”
Williams, who is already a player noted for his strong work ethic, increased his workout intensity during the off-season to further improve his game. The Forest Park, Okla. native, blossomed during Duke’s 2003-04 campaign, earning the nickname “The Landlord” by posting three blocks per game and deterring opposing players from driving the lane. He also put up 12.6 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game and had a .586 field-goal percentage.
Despite his solid statistics, the Achilles’ heel that took the Landlord away from his property and to the bench was foul trouble. Williams committed at least four fouls in four of Duke’s six losses last season and fouled out against Maryland in the ACC Championship Game and in the 79-78 Final Four loss to Connecticut.
“I think I’m in better shape where I won’t get tired at the [same] points as I did last year,” Williams said. “You know you have to be on the floor for the team to win, as we saw in different games last year.”
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski emphasized avoiding foul trouble during the off-season because several players, Williams included, picked up quick fouls that ultimately led to the team’s demise against UConn. Krzyzewski thinks another year of experience will prevent his two main big men, Williams and junior Shavlik Randolph, from falling into similar traps this season.
“The fact that [Williams and Randolph] are both juniors, as you grow older, you learn how to play better tired,” Krzyzewski said. “Your limit is stretched because you are not using as much emotional energy.”
At the rate Williams is developing, many believe he is a strong contender and possibly a favorite to make first-team All-ACC. This is a tall order considering the plethora of skilled centers in the conference, and each of the three ACC teams ranked ahead of preseason-No. 12 Duke has a talented giant.
Junior Sean May of No. 3 North Carolina has a highly-touted offensive game. Eric Williams of No. 2 Wake Forest can match the Landlord with his size on both ends of the floor. Maybe the least expected of them all, No. 4 Georgia Tech’s gangly Luke Schenscher has proven his ability to exploit the mismatch against Duke’s center.
“I’d say the most-improved big man in the ACC would be Luke Schenscher,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of good big men in the ACC, so night in, night out I’ve got to come ready to play.”
The anticipation and tension in the ACC is at an all-time high, as the conference includes four teams in the top 12 with Maryland and N.C. State not far behind. The Landlord needs to avoid letting the positive hype into his head, but even more worrisome are the occasional death threats he received on AOL Instant Messenger.
“I had to change my AOL so that only my buddy list could IM me,” Williams said. “If you get [caught] up in all the hype, you will see yourself fall by the wayside. I’m going to go out there without having read any preseason magazines or that kind of stuff.”
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Williams did acknowledge, however, that there are people to prove wrong if the team is to capture its fourth NCAA Championship.
“We have to shock a lot of people this year,” Williams said.
Then maybe he can lose his focus for a little and go fishing with dad and brother.