Its tournament time, and Fighting Illini commit D.J. Williams is ready to turn up the heat.
It's been a long time since Chicago powerhouse Simeon Career Academy began play in the IHSA tournament as a long-shot to win the state title; the Wolverines have taken home the last four Class 4A championship trophies. As unfamiliar as it is, "underdog" is the position that Simeon finds themselves in this March.
A win on Friday vs. Stagg will likely match up Simeon with the city's other elite program, Whitney Young, next Wednesday in the semifinals of the Chicago Marist sectional. Williams talked about what his club has to do to make another deep run into the tourney.
"We just have to stay humble, work hard every day, and stay consistent," Williams said. "A lot of teams break down at the end of the year."
Early in the 2013-14 season, Simeon head coach Robert Smith moved Williams from wing to the lead guard spot to get him more active and involved in the Wolverines' offense. The experiment has been mostly successful - Williams is creative with the ball and uses his length to throw over defenses.
His offensive production has been inconsistent, however, something the Illini faithful have taken notice of. One of the top analyst in the area isn't as worried.
"Illinois fans, I wouldn't be overly concerned," said Joe Henrickson, publisher of the City/Suburban Hoops Report in Chicago. "He just has natural ability and his size and versatility are hard to find. I think it has helped his development a little bit playing point guard, but he's not a point guard per se. He has been forced to play point guard out of necessity, and he has done a nice job. But I think it has taken away from his productivity and his numbers."
The most consistent offensive player on this year's Simeon team has been junior forward Ed Morrow - a high-motor player that Illinois coach John Groce is also taking a long look at. Morrow needs help. There's talent on the roster, but the shooting has been hit and miss (a lot of miss) and they turn it over at a high rate for a Smith-coached team.
If Williams has it in him to turn up the heat offensively, this would be a good time to do it. He's happy in his role running the club and getting teammates involved, but to get back to Peoria he knows the Wolverines need another consistent scorer.
"I have to pick up everything," Williams said. "I have to take the leadership role more seriously, play hard, and do whatever Coach Rob asks me to do to help the team win."
At 6-foot-7, Williams is long, athletic, and skilled - a combination that will eventually lead to more production. Though he doesn't expect him to flip a switch and explode offensively in the playoffs, Henrickson said Williams has the tools to give Simeon the second threat they so desperately need.
"They need another guy or two to join Morrow," Henrickson said. "I think DJ is the guy who could do that. That doesn't mean he has to go score 25 points. But just to impact the game at a high level and make big, big plays down the stretch of games."
Whether or not Williams can give Simeon a big lift this March is something to track. The big picture, though, is that Williams has the measurables and work ethic that you look for as a high major recruiter. By the time he steps on the court at a renovated State Farm Center, Henrickson believes Williams will be ready to put in his production in line with his potential.
"I think he is blessed with just a bundle of talent," Henrickson said. "Some guys are rapid fire in their development, and some guys step by step are a little slower. Projection wise I still love him and he's progressing. Now is the time you have to raise your level above your play from the regular season. I know Illinois fans want that highly productive player, but you just have to be patient. Mentally, it's going to come for DJ. It's about maturity and being comfortable and at ease in that role."
In the meantime, the sectional matchup with the Whitney Young Dolphins and Duke-bound big man Jahlil Okafor, can serve as a measuring stick in Williams' development.
The Wolverines had some success slowing down the state's other top big Cliff Alexander.
That gives Williams confidence that they can do the same against Okafor should both teams advance on Friday.
"It's going to be a great match up," Williams said. "I'm looking forward to it. We just have to stick to our roles and the game plan. When we played Curie, we stopped Cliff from having a monster game, and he had a monster season. We just have to stick to the game plan against Jahlil and make their role players try to win the game."