PITTSBURGH, Pa. – When describing his game, Eric Williams Jr. keeps it relatively simple.
Any conversation about his style of play or what he needs to be on the court generally produces the same line, “I just go out there and do what I have to do.”
For the Duquesne Dukes, what does that mean?
“Rebounding, passing, scoring, helping the team out,” he claimed. “Doing the dirty work.”
Williams Jr. did all that and more in his first year on The Bluff. He led the Dukes in rebounding (8.8) and double-doubles (11), ranked second in scoring (14.3) and set several Duquesne freshman records—points in a game (34), rebounds in a game (16), and total three-pointers made (67). For a program starving for success, he has all the makings of a superstar that can help restore the Duquesne glory days.
Williams Jr. is confident and fearless—he scored the go-ahead basket in wins over George Mason and Saint Louis. His left-handed stroke is silky smooth—he knocked down a Duquesne record nine threes against George Mason. And he’s one well-timed pass away from sending fans leaping out of their seats—his high-flying dunks always seemed to up the ante from his previous slam.
Head coach Keith Dambrot said on several occasions Williams Jr. was one of the best freshmen he’s ever coached, but the now-sophomore downplays it all.
“I just got out there, play, and try to not think about it, honestly,” Williams Jr. said.
Most 6-foot-5 swingmen are not considered high-volume rebounders but Williams Jr. is the exception. Despite being consistently matched up against bigger opponents, the New Haven, Michigan, native displayed a precocious feel for tracking the ball off misses. He logged 14 games with 10 or more rebounds, and his 280 total rebounds were the second-most all time for a Dukes rookie player.
He spent all summer on campus, taking classes in June and July and working to add muscle in hopes of stabilizing his body.
“I came into Duquesne at 175 and I’m up to 205,” Williams Jr. said. “My weight is noticeably a lot better. The small things like getting pushed around and stuff, it doesn’t happen as much as it did last year. I’m still pretty skinny, honestly, but just stronger.”
Expectations for the 2018-19 Duquesne season will start with Williams Jr. He was the youngest player on the Atlantic-10 All-Rookie team and was tabbed a preseason second-team selection at the conference’s media day two weeks ago.
“It means a lot, but its just preseason,” Williams said. “I can’t let it get to me. I have to keep working like I did last year and come out and do what I have to do. It’s an honor, though, to be on that list, to be recognized.”
The Dukes will have 11 new faces this year—four transfers and seven freshmen—but Williams Jr. said the team is further along in year two under Dambrot than compared to last fall.
“We need to work on a few more things, but I think we’re almost there, honestly,” he said. “It’s up to us, the players, we’ve got to perform.”
Juniors Mike Lewis III and Kellon Taylor and Williams Jr. are the only returners so expect the Michigan product to be more vocal on the court this year.
“I think altogether our group collectively needs to be leaders and doing the right things,” Williams Jr. said. “If everybody does the right things, I think it will all play out. But I do need to be more vocal, which I have been.”
Duquesne improved by six wins under Dambrot last year but it could have easily been more. Williams Jr. lamented his frustration with the team’s close calls. The Dukes twice fell on last-second shots and lost another game in overtime. Second half double-digits leads at VCU and Rhode Island were squandered.
“Every possession counts,” Williams Jr. said of the biggest takeaway from his freshman season. “We lost a lot of close games. Even though we didn’t have all the pieces we wanted, we still could have won those games. There are no excuses.”
Duquesne announced last week plans for a comprehensive renovation of the A.J. Palumbo Center. Set to break ground in March, the modernized and re-imagined facility will be named UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse in honor of Duquesne legend and NBA trailblazer Chuck Cooper. The announcement reaffirms the administration’s commitment to turning Duquesne hoops back into a winner. Williams Jr. is excited, but like describing his game, he keeps it fairly simple.
“I just go day by day and focus on what we need to focus on,” Williams Jr. said. “We can’t get distracted. It’s nice we’re getting a whole new facility, but we’ve got to win.”