Mark Williams soared for the rebound, controlled the ball into the paint and rose up for the two-handed slam. After hanging from the rim for a split second, the breakout star came down to Earth, turning toward the Blue Devil bench and unleashing a cry of emotion. In that vindicating, fulfilling moment, it felt as if Williams was only just getting started.
But less than 24 hours later, Duke’s season would come to an untimely end.
Facing off against Louisville in the second round of the ACC tournament in March, the Blue Devils found themselves in a desperate bid to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive, needing an improbable conference title to do so.
Enter Williams. The four-star freshman’s late-season rampage—a five-game stretch capped off with a 13-point performance in the tournament’s first round—helped the Blue Devils get to that point against Louisville in the first place. That all paled in comparison to his performance against the Cardinals, as William stunned with career-highs of 23 points and 19 rebounds.
The generally reserved Williams’ authoritative second-half dunk—the final basket of his freshman season—felt like the definitive moment of a campaign filled with patience and growth.
Williams may have been at the top of the mountain that spring night in Greensboro, N.C., but it took him the better part of the 2020-21 season to get there.
“When we first saw [Mark] to recruit him, we felt that he was going to be at some time a player of—a high-level player, and then the maturation process of a big guy can take a while,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that night after the win. “His has sped up in an amazing fashion in the last month.”
“I'm proud of him. He's been working his butt off all year long,” said G-League signee and 2020-21 leading scorer Matthew Hurt after that same game. “There were some stretches that he wasn't playing well, wasn't playing, but he just kept working, working with Coach [Nate] James. I'm so proud of him, our teammates are so proud of him.”
Williams’ maturation pushed Duke onto the next round, but when news of a positive COVID-19 test within the program arrived the following morning, he never got his big-game opportunity. Instead, Williams’ breakout showing proved to be an ironic end to his freshman season, not a fresh start.
“You realize the game can be taken away in a second,” Williams said at the team’s preseason media day Sept. 28. “That was a prime example of that. So just playing every game like it’s your last, going out there and being as aggressive as you can, just try to be the best you can be.”
It has been a long offseason since Williams’ emphatic arrival with that dunk against the Cardinals. Today, one year older, stronger and wiser, the second-year man from Virginia Beach, Va., looks set to be a leader for the Blue Devils and to truly play every game like it’s his last. After an eventful year in Durham, he feels that he knows as well as anybody what’s at stake.
“Honestly, I think just knowing what we went through last year, there’s nothing that didn’t happen last year,” Williams said in response to a question about stepping into a leadership role. “We lost, COVID hit and stopped our season, so it’s honestly just being vocal, just letting them know that you know the stakes, like you know what we’re going into.”
Williams does know, better than most, what sorts of trials and tribulations await him and his team this season. To better understand how and why, we have to turn the clock back even further to the very start of Williams’ freshman season.
A look back
Williams came to Duke as an upper-echelon recruit but ended up taking a backseat early on in Krzyzewski’s rotation. As Hurt emerged as the team’s offensive focal point at small-ball center, Williams stayed rooted to the bench. With the exception of a 15-minute showing in a blowout win against Bellarmine in December, the freshman center did not see double-digit minutes until late January.
When he did finally see the court, Williams settled in fairly quickly for Duke. With help from associate head coach Nate James, who was renowned for his rapport with Duke’s big men over the years, the center became a near-instant mainstay in the rotation. Williams played a key role in the team’s late-season four-game win streak and kicked off his own torrid stretch with an 18-point, 11-rebound performance against Syracuse for his first career double-double. All of a sudden, it seemed as if he had figured it out.
“I think it was just more of a confidence thing,” Williams said about his sudden success.
Williams’ newfound confidence made him an exciting player to watch down the season’s home stretch, but it also made him an intriguing NBA draft candidate as the clock ran out on Duke’s season. For a time, it certainly seemed as if his season-ending dunk against Louisville could have been the last made bucket of his Blue Devil career.
But “Big Mark,” as he is affectionately known by his teammates, decided to return to Durham for his sophomore season and continue his rise.
“Obviously just be yourself, be confident,” Williams said. “I think confidence is probably one of the biggest things because basketball is going to take care of itself.”
A look forward
In his second year, the suddenly-experienced Williams has the unique opportunity to lead a talented and diverse frontcourt trio with immense potential. Six-foot-10 Marquette transfer Theo John and superstar freshman Paolo Banchero account for the other two-thirds of that equation, combining to present the Blue Devils with seemingly limitless opportunities down low this season.
“We feel like we should have the best frontline in the country,” said head coach-in-waiting John Scheyer. “Those two guys are incredibly unique, to have two guys at their size that can be ball-friendly, that can share the ball. And their defensive versatility… takes our team to a different level because of the defensive versatility in addition to the offense.”
Banchero, recently named the Preseason ACC Player of the Year, is a special talent. With both their size and shooting touch, the starting combination of him at power forward and Williams at center gives the Blue Devils a ridiculously large and athletic duo on the blocks.
“Paolo’s a great player. He’s a legit 6-10, can move really well, and I think we complement each other really well,” said Williams. “He does a lot of things on the floor, and then me being able to play alongside him makes my life a lot easier. Hopefully, it’ll make his a lot easier, too.”
The possibilities are endless, but the expectations, for the duo and each player individually, are high. While Williams’ preseason outlook in 2020-21 was murky at best, the coaching staff is already asking for more out of their star center this season. Associate head coach Chris Carrawell, for one, expects Williams to be among the nation’s premier shot-blockers and rim-runners.
“It’s gonna be different this year, because at the end of [last season], nobody really game-planned for him. Right?...” said Carrawell. “But now they’re gonna be more prepared and ready for him, so he has to bring that edge and that intensity every day.”
A side-effect of Williams’ success—a welcome one, to be sure—is that he no longer has the luxury of flying under the radar. After he was named to the Preseason All-ACC Second Team, the secret is officially out: Williams will not only be a star for the Blue Devils, but a key component to their success this season.
Williams hasn’t backed down as the spotlight brightens. Carrawell’s bold shot-blocking projection? Williams calls it “totally attainable.” His team’s defensive potential? He believes it’s as high as any other team in the country.
In his eyes, Williams has seen it all. He knows what he and his team have at stake, and confidently believes in his own ability. Even though he knows that his next game probably will not be his last, he’s prepared to play like it, both now and when the time comes.
In many ways, that time is already here. Delayed far too long, it’s high time for Williams to start anew.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.