LAS VEGAS — Of all the places Grant Williams could be at age 20 he is here, running the hardwood, banging bodies, and playing alongside some of the best professional basketball players in the world. Through hard work, physical prowess, and mental fortitude, Williams has ascended to the top of his craft, becoming an NBA first-round pick of the Celtics.
Yet his basketball accomplishments make up only a fraction of who Williams is. Williams is a former chess champion, a math wiz, a savant who downloads hundreds of game applications to his phone to pass the time.
Williams is a brilliant young man who just happens to be 6 feet 7 inches, 240 pounds, with a mean streak on the basketball floor. Despite majoring in something called supply chain management with collateral marketing, Williams graduated from the University of Tennessee in just three years and was named first-team All American in leading the Volunteers to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
He embraces his intelligence. He is unapologetically a geek, someone who on the night before he and his three fellow Celtics draft picks were introduced didn’t ask whether they wanted to hit the Boston club scene, but rather whether they wanted to play PlayStation or Nintendo Switch.
“I’ve always had fun in different ways,” Williams said. “I play board games, card games, being a guy that likes spending time with people more so than being out chasing the next girl. That’s not my personality type. I enjoy relationships and forming those and learning more about people, not all the extra stuff.
“But I was always kind of a numbers guy. I still am. But I’m more so of a nerd, a geek in that sense. I want to learn and I have a lot to learn. I like watching “Shark Tank,” it’s like one of the favorite things I like to do in my free time now. I love that type of life.”
Coming from a family of educators and basketball players, young Grant attacked school and basketball with equal vigor, excelling in both. Grant’s father, Gilbert Williams, is a jazz artist, and his mother, Teresa Johnson, is an engineer at NASA in Houston.
“When we got together, my brother introduced us, and he said we would have an NBA child,” Gilbert said. “And he wanted a dollar from each of us as a result of putting us together. So [Grant] was bred for this, he has a long family lineage. My mother’s brother was one of the original Harlem Globetrotters, both of my nephews, Salim and Damon Stoudamire, played in the NBA. [Grant’s] brothers are all good basketball players, but he was just special. We knew that from the very beginning.”
Young Grant learned chess from his grandfather, and soon he became so skilled that he began competing in national tournaments. He advanced all the way to a match against the No. 1 player in the country in his age group.
“I was in the third or fourth grade and he was in ninth and No. 1 in the country, and I was like the 800th- or 900th-ranked guy,” Grant said. “Next thing you know I was competing with him and I think he was kind of shocked that I was playing so strategic against him. And I ended up beating him, but the next game I lost to someone who was ranked like 2,000. It was a very high moment at the time, but it just got shattered.”
Grant said he ended his pursuit of chess to concentrate on basketball. But that didn’t stop him from participating in math and science competitions as a teenager in addition to playing four musical instruments. He was the definition of well-rounded, but he was also growing physically and becoming more serious about sports.
Ivy League interest
Recruiters began to attend his games at Providence Day School in Charlotte, N.C., and the most interested coaches were Yale’s James Jones and Harvard’s Tommy Amaker. Because of his academic accomplishments, Grant appeared destined for an Ivy League school and wasn’t heavily recruited by others during his early high school years.
Grant’s mother implored him to attend Yale or Harvard, but one unrelated move altered that plan. Alan Major stepped down as coach at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in 2015, and one of his assistants, Desmond Oliver, was added to the staff at Tennessee under Rick Barnes.
At UNC-Charlotte, Oliver extensively watched Williams in AAU tournaments and knew he was a prospect on the rise, even if most others didn’t.
“When Grant was going into his junior year, he played with a different AAU program and I was watching those games and he was getting 25 and 30 points and 15 rebounds. He was handling the ball, shooting threes,” Oliver said. “If Division 1 coaches had seen that version of Grant, his recruiting would have been totally different. But as a rising senior he got some bad advice, and the advice was to go with a more acclaimed AAU program that had great players. The problem was they had so many great players that Grant ended up being a 6-foot-5-inch center on that team. To me, it made him look like he wasn’t a high-major guy.”
So Oliver put the full-court recruiting press on Grant, which created a dilemma. Play in the Southeastern Conference and enhance his NBA chances, or appease his mother by choosing Harvard or Yale.
“It wasn’t really a conversation, it was more so, ‘I love you, mom, but I have [made] that decision,’ and she hated it and she didn’t talk to me for a while,” Grant said. “But it’s something she ended up loving and she thought I made the best decision I possibly could have made, and she was more so she wishes she had seen it earlier.
“I loved Coach Amaker at Harvard and Coach Jones at Yale. Those are the coaches that were consistently there during my entire recruitment. I had good relationships with them. But I just had a feeling and more so I trusted the staff at Tennessee.”
Said Teresa Johnson: “I remember I wanted him to go to one of the colleges here in the [North Carolina] area or one of the other Ivy Leagues and he said, ‘Mom, I prayed about going to Tennessee,’ and I had to just respect that. He said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
A true student-athlete
At Tennessee, Williams thrived academically with the express purpose of getting his degree in three years and declaring for the NBA Draft after three seasons. He took 18 credits per semester, while most of the other athletes took 12.
On the floor, he started all but three games in three seasons, joining Washington Wizards rookie second-round pick Admiral Schofield as integral parts of Tennessee’s basketball resurgence. The Volunteers reached the NCAA regional semifinals before losing to Purdue, which was led by a 29-point performance by fellow Celtics draftee Carsen Edwards.
Williams’s legacy at Tennessee is one of an all-time great who flourished academically and athletically, always remaining his geeky self.
“Grant’s a goofy dude. Unlike a lot of young people, he’s comfortable in his own skin,” Oliver said. “I think he knows who he is. His parents have done a great job. Both his mom and dad have been tremendous in helping keep their kid grounded, but more importantly keeping their kid confident in terms of who he is and being OK with it, it’s OK to be a nerd, a guy who is academic in nature and not out there in a club all night doing nonsense. It’s OK to do your homework and go to bed on time and be a good kid.”
Oliver said Grant would find time after classes and practice to attend Oliver’s 15-year-old son’s middle school games or pick up and spin around Oliver’s 9-year-old son on his shoulders, with the ability to relate to both.
“We’ll never get a guy like that again that checks all those boxes,” Oliver said. “I told Grant, sometimes even though you’re going to be great and you’re destined for greatness, everyone doesn’t see it. Everyone didn’t see Kawhi Leonard coming out. Everyone didn’t see Damian Lillard and those types of guys coming out. Not saying Grant’s going to be Kawhi or Damian, but those guys are NBA stars that were two-star high school recruits and three-star high school recruits.”
Williams said now that the academic part of his life is over for now, he can concentrate on basketball, but that won’t stop from trying to find a Catan (his favorite board game) tournament in Boston.
Williams will continue to feed his hunger for knowledge on and off the floor, embracing his eccentric ways while trying to become the next great Celtic.
“I feel like I’ve never been able to focus on the sport that I love,” he said. “More so now I got that degree in my pocket, I can challenge myself to learn the game as much as I can. I’m also excited about what I can accomplish in the future. I want to learn about everything. It’s great to have the versatility we have in our family. We have guys in sports and music and educational background. It kind of formed who I am today and I am surrounded by people from high school, college, and before then that had different interests, as well. Everything has kind of shaped into being the person that I am.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.