CHAPEL HILL — It didn’t matter that Kenny Williams’ shot wasn’t quite back Friday night during the Late Night With Roy scrimmage. He was back and feeling at full strength again after missing the last 14 games of last season and suffering a setback in July.
He eventually came to terms with only being able to watch and cheer on his North Carolina teammates from the bench during their run to the national championship after having surgery on the torn meniscus in his right knee.
“Of course, I wanted to be out there battling with the guys,” Williams said. “But, at that point, I had given it to God and let him take control of it and I just started to enjoy it. I wasn’t upset, I wasn’t feeling some kind of way about not being on the court because there’s nothing I can do about it. I just tried to enjoy it with these guys as much as I could.”
He maintained that outlook and stayed positive until he re-injured that meniscus in early July and it became much more of a mental challenge to go with the obvious physical challenge.
“I had just gotten back, I think my second or third day of pick up playing and it just happened again so that was really frustrating and kind of devastating. It was rough on me,” Williams said.
The 6-4 junior missed all four field-goal attempts (three from 3-point range) and had three rebounds and an assist during the 20-minute scrimmage. His White team, led by graduate transfer Cameron Johnson’s 13 points, lost to the Blue team, paced by Theo Pinson’s 8 points, 35–30.
“Since we’ve been in practice, I’ve been going 100 percent,” Williams said. “They’ve been letting me do everything. Like they said before, they are monitoring my reps. Other than that, everything’s good.”
After the detour of that second surgery, he finally was cleared for basketball activities Oct. 1. Since then, he’s tried to finish his road back toward the player was when he scored 8 of his 11 points in the first half of an 83–76 victory in Greensboro over Notre Dame.
When did he feel like he was totally back?
“Physically, this past week in terms of my wind and getting up and down the court and being able to run the way I like to and the way I used to,” Williams said. “I’ll say this past week, I really felt good wind-wise and with my conditioning.”
Unlike previous offseasons, Williams stayed in Chapel Hill to rehab rather than going home to Midlothian, Va. The rehab was intense and couldn’t have been as fun as daily pickup games would have been.
“Basically, we’ve just been trying to get the strength back in the leg,” he said. “After two surgeries, I lost some of my strength I had in that leg. So, it’s been a lot of single-leg things, and just things to get the strength back as much as I could. It’s just been trying to work on stability, too, just for some prevention stuff and that’s really been it.”
It was just a fun night for Williams to be able to fully participate with his teammates again and to enjoy the unfurling of the 2017 national-championship banner. He felt the emotion of the moment before a loud and enthusiastic Smith Center crowd.
“It was a lot of fun,” Williams said. “By far, the highlight had to be dropping the banner. I can’t even explain that. The crowd was really into it. They were really hyped up. We had a lot of fun with it and that’s usually how it is every year.”
He could see the joy of what the team was able to accomplish in the faces of his teammates, NCAA tournament MOP Joel Berry II in particular.
“It was great. Joel got a little teary-eyed and I think that’s just a testament of how hard we worked for it, especially with what happened my freshman year losing the national championship,” Williams said. “From leaving that locker room, we were determined to get back. We wanted to redeem ourselves and we did. To see that and to see the banner go down, it was really big. I think that was one of the biggest things that’s happened to me in my life so far.”
He’ll miss having Justin Jackson on the wing this season. But he’s been impressed with what he’s seen from Johnson, Jackson’s likely successor, both in practice and during Friday’s scrimmage.
“Cam is a great shooter and a great offensive player,” said Williams, who remembers well that Johnson made six 3-pointers and scored 24 points in Pittsburgh’s 80–78 loss at the Smith Center last season.
“When he’s aggressive, when he’s knocking down his shot and looking for his shot, he’s a really good player,” Williams said. “I think we all know what he did in here. He likes this gym, he loves this gym so hopefully he can carry it into the season.”
Although guard Seventh Woods struggled at times during his freshman year, Williams has seen a different player so far in practice.
“Seventh has gotten back to his middle-school, high-school athleticism,” Williams said. “We’ve seen him dunking, between the legs. His confidence is sky-high right now and hopefully he keeps it up and he can be a big part of the season for us.”
With all of the experience in the backcourt, led by Berry and Pinson, and with the losses of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, many have speculated that the Tar Heels might play more small ball next season. That won’t be the case if practice is any indication.
“We actually haven’t done a lot of small ball,” Williams said. “Honestly, we’ve done it once. It’s just not Coach’s thing. He doesn’t want to do it if he doesn’t have to. We’ve actually have been doing a lot of two bigs just to get the guys acclimated and used to what we do here.”
Williams just hopes that he can get used to staying healthy and on the court this season.