One-and-not-quite-done: Why Mark Williams returned to Duke basketball

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A strong finish to his freshman season could have been enough for Mark Williams.

Standing 7 feet tall, with a 7-7 wingspan and weighing a solid 243 pounds, the Duke center looked like one of the ACC’s top players in the ACC tournament.

A 23-point, 19-rebound effort when Duke beat Louisville to reach the quarterfinals at Greensboro Coliseum last March 10 showed Williams could dominate.

But could he do that in professional basketball?

That’s the question he faced after Duke’s season was abruptly ended by COVID-19 with positive cases on the team leading to its withdrawal from the ACC tournament with a 13-11 record.

One of his classmates, Jalen Johnson, declared for the NBA Draft and left the team in February. Another, D.J. Steward, turned pro after the season ended.

Every year since 2014, at least one Duke freshman has been taken in the NBA Draft’s first round, usually in the lottery.

Williams explored the idea of becoming the latest one-and-done Blue Devil.

“I did,” Williams told the News & Observer this month.

But it went no further.

“I felt like coming back, I could really show what I can do over the course of a whole year,” Williams said. “My body of work last year, I don’t think, would have been enough. I mean, it could have been, obviously, if I’d have tested the waters. But I didn’t want it to be a question. So I wanted to come back, show what I could do, dominate for a whole year and see what happens from there.”

Mark Williams looks at the big picture

His decision made him a rarity among Duke players of recent vintage. Sophomores become grizzled veterans as guys from Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor to Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson boarded the one-and-done train.

Williams looked at the big picture. He’d struggled to adjust to college basketball early, only playing more than eight minutes in one game prior to late January.

Even on Feb. 20, tasked with guarding Virginia 7-1 center Jay Huff, Williams played just seven minutes that day.

“Jay is such a good basketball player,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said that day, after the Blue Devils won 66-65. “His footwork, his touch and his ball handling. Mark hasn’t guarded anyone like that.”

In a game 11 days later at Georgia Tech, which had 6-9, 230-pound, ACC player of the year Moses Wright in the middle, Williams scored 20 points but fouled out.

So, while his size and skill would have been enough for some NBA to either draft him or sign him as a free agent, Williams knew what he’d done wasn’t enough for him.

He was good at times, great in the ACC tournament. He’s seeking a higher, more consistent level.

“He should be the best rebounder and be the best defender in the country or try to be,” Duke associate head coach Chris Carrawell told The News & Observer.

To get there, Williams hit the road this summer, working out and finding gym time and games to play in Philadelphia, Miami and Washington, D.C., against fellow college and some professional players.

“Continuing to work on my game, expanding my game,” Williams said. “Just being decisive with all my moves.”

Internal competition, and depth

Back at Duke with his new teammates by late June, Williams found one particularly intriguing addition to the roster who should help him in practice and games.

Theo John transferred to Duke to play his final year of NCAA basketball. Listed at 6-9 and 242 pounds, the veteran center joined the Blue Devils after starting 25 games for Marquette last season. He’s played in 123 college games.

Suddenly, Williams has a comparable athlete to battle in practice every day. He has a teammate who’s played in the Big East and has NCAA tournament experience.

“He’s really strong,” Williams said. “He’s been around the game for a while and can teach me some tricks. He’s really strong. That forces me to make better moves. If I can do it against him, that’s going to make life easier against somebody smaller than that, because he’s 6-10, 250. He’s legit.”

Former Duke and NBA center Shelden Williams (no relation), the two-time national defensive player of the year during his days with the Blue Devils, said a physical teammate like John will make Williams even better, especially on defense.

“What I’m actually excited about is, now they actually have a guy who can bang against Mark every day in practice,” Shelden Williams said on his podcast. “He can actually get used to Theo bumping his chest and still trying to stay strong and stay straight up where he’s not putting his arms down and giving up cheap fouls.”

Carrawell made it clear that is where the foundation of Williams’ game needs to be for him to be considered one of the nation’s top centers and someone worthy of being a first-round draft pick.

“You build it from defense,” Carrawell said. “They want to know if he can defend. That’s the first thing they look at from bigs now. Can you defend around the rim? Can you go out on pick and rolls? Can you protect the paint? Can you rebound the ball? That’s the foundation and everything else comes from that.”

Bigger than basketball

Mark Williams’ belief in improving his play to a higher level before jumping to a higher level of competition isn’t the only way he’s different from recent one-and-done Duke players.

NCAA rule changes in July allowing players to profit financially from their name, image and likeness removed some of the monetary impetus for leaving school. Williams is active on Cameo, receiving $50 for custom, personalized video greetings, with more opportunities still out there.

His family also values education. His father, Dr. Alex Williams, is a practicing gastroenterologist in Chesapeake, Virginia.

Mark Williams made the all-ACC Academic Honor Roll for posting a 3.0 GPA or better last school year.

His older sister, Elizabeth, was a four-time, all-American center for Duke’s women’s basketball team from 2011-15. She twice made the ACC Honor Roll, in addition to the school’s Dean’s List, while receiving her psychology degree before entering the WNBA, where she now plays with the Atlanta Dream.

Mark Williams, though, said that aspect of his life alone wouldn’t keep him from entering the NBA early if he’s ready after this season.

“Even if I leave, I would plan on coming back to finish school,” he said.

Back in 2010, when Elizabeth Williams committed to Duke, it was an 8-year-old Mark who helped reveal the news by removing his jacket to display a Blue Devils shirt at her signing day event.

In December 2016, 15-year-old Mark was at Cameron Indoor Stadium with his parents when Elizabeth’s No. 1 jersey was retired to the rafters.

His family’s legacy literally hangs over his head while he plays for the Blue Devils.

Now here he is, honing and strengthening his game with a chance to become a national defensive player of the year, just like his sister was in 2015.

“I honestly got familiar with Cameron when I was younger with her playing in the same gym,” Mark Williams said. “It’s crazy. Full circle.”

All of that was too much to pull Mark Williams away from Duke and to the NBA following his freshman season.

The Blue Devils figure to benefit from having their standout center on the court as they work to deliver one last national championship in Krzyzewski’s final season before his retirement next spring.

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