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28 Feb 2014

Commander on the Court

Commander on the Court

 Originally posted on The Daily of the University of Washington by Thuc Nhi Nguyen  

Nigel Williams-Goss is skeptical. The freshman point guard has never seen plays like these before.

“Um,” he says with hesitation, “they’re interesting.”

The hand-drawn circles and squiggles taped to the four pieces of white poster board he’s sitting in front of aren’t real plays, so his confusion is warranted. It’s probably the first time in a long time he’s been this confused on the basketball court. As the UW’s floor general, it’s Williams-Goss’ job to know what’s happening on the court at all times. Playing for a former point guard and a school with a long lineage of dynamic point guards, the 19-year-old is carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders, but Williams-Goss has shown he’s up to the challenge.

One of the many reasons why Williams-Goss came to Washington was head coach Lorenzo Romar’s history as a point guard and the legacy of point guards he has produced. The UW’s 12-year head coach commanded legendary head coach Marv Harshman’s offense for two seasons before playing five years in the NBA. Since returning to coach at his alma mater, he’s produced three current NBA point guards, and a handful more who are playing overseas.

Williams-Goss knows his predecessors well. The list is long: Will Conroy, the UW’s all-time assists leader; Isaiah Thomas, a 5-foot-9 superstar who wrote his name in UW basketball lore with a cold-blooded, conference-clinching dagger in 2011; Nate Robinson, another diminutive fan-favorite with so much bounce he could leap 7-footers in a single bound; Tony Wroten, the 2012 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, and many more. He knows what they did under Romar to be successful and what he has to do as well to be the next one in line.

“They all listened, and I think that’s one thing you can never stop learning,” Wiliams-Goss said. “When you’ve stopped learning, you’ll stop improving. So they’ve all told me to learn as much as I can, soak up as much information as I can, and never stop working.”

A point guard must be a hard worker, Williams-Goss said, but the biggest thing he must be is a leader. Leadership has to show through more from a point guard than any other position on the court, the freshman said, because the point guard runs the offense and directs traffic on the court. But leadership also has to come through off the court in his relationships with teammates. Williams-Goss said being able to listen to feedback and be receptive were also important qualities for point guards.

To come through on those responsibilities and meet the expectations of his coach, Williams-Goss watches as much game film as possible on both the Huskies and the opposing team. With all the extra film study, he can more quickly synthesize time and score situations and combine them with what he’s reading from the defense, what Romar is relaying from the sidelines, and where his teammates are on the court. 

The point guard’s duties on the court mirror the quarterback’s on the gridiron, as both players are an extension of the coach on the playing field and orchestrate the offense. For Williams-Goss, he’s taken inspiration from some of the great NFL quarterbacks to improve his play on the court.

“I watch a ton of film and I think I got that from the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the quarterbacks,” Williams-Goss said. “They say that they study an excessive amount of film so they know everything that’s going to happen before it happens, so I’ve tried to take that approach and add it to my game.”

As is the case with quarterbacks, Williams-Goss thinks point guards carry a heavy burden for the team’s struggles. With Romar watching, the burden might be even heavier. The head coach’s expectations for a point guard in his system are high; after all, he used to be one too. Naturally, he likes a point guard who can defend. But he also likes one who can score. Twenty-five or 30 points a night? Sure. He likes his point guards smart and savvy with a competitive edge that demands the respect of the team. He likes leaders, and those are all reasons why he likes Williams-Goss.

Williams-Goss is smart: He graduated high school with a 4.0 grade point average, and if he weren’t at the UW, he would be at Harvard. He can score, he can distribute, and he hates losing so much, he won’t even tolerate it while playing video games or board games. Despite being one of the UW’s youngest players, the former McDonald’s All-American is already turning into one of its leaders because that’s what point guards have to be.

“It’s tough, being one of the youngest players on the team and you have guys who have been here for five years,” Williams-Goss said. “It is challenging, but fortunately for me, I’ve had great teammates and a great coaching staff, who have embraced my nature, which is being vocal and the leader that I am. Everyone has really embraced it and let me be who I am.”

Playing with older teammates isn’t new to Williams-Goss. He’s done it at almost every level of basketball he’s been in, whether it was in AAU, high school, or on the international level with Team USA last summer when he won a gold medal at the FIBA U-19 World Championship. Those experiences have helped him mature and learn how to more easily establish relationships with teammates in new situations. And so far, they’ve paid off, as Williams-Goss has impressed his team.

“He just keeps getting better and that’s what you expect from a player of his caliber,” said sophomore Andrew Andrews, who can also play the point for the Huskies. “He’s all about getting better. He works hard. He takes in everything he’s being told.”

Romar thinks the last player he had who made as big an impact during his first season with the Huskies as the one Williams-Goss is making now was Thomas in 2009. That year, Thomas, who now plays for the Sacramento Kings, was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and led the team in scoring and assists with 15.5 points and 2.7 assists per game, respectively.

“Neither was intimidated,” Romar said of Thomas’ and Williams-Goss’ freshman campaigns, “and they both had a high will to win, and they were, as freshmen, mature beyond their years that way.”

The head coach is so impressed with Williams-Goss that Romar was, at first, surprised by the question of his point guard’s biggest road block this year. After a brief pause the coach said that at times turnovers have plagued Williams-Goss. But even so, he still leads all Pac-12 freshmen in assist-to-turnover ratio. In a conference with many dynamic rookies, including Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, Romar thinks his has to be in the running for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

“Not too many, if any, are having a better freshman year than Nigel Williams-Goss is having,” Romar said.

The coach said Williams-Goss has a “calming effect” on his team that is unique for a freshman. Williams-Goss knows when to take over the game and when to let others take the scoring load. It’s something he learned from playing with top-notch teams all over the world and watching the world’s best players. More so than anything, Williams-Goss is a fan of basketball. He likes watching, playing, and especially talking about basketball, but not so much talking about the fake plays he took photos in front of.

He’s more at home breaking down plays frame-by-frame from a recent game. While flipping through a series of photos, he knew exactly which play the UW was running as soon he got to the second image.

He also knows what’s going to happen next; good point guards always do.


Check out this video from The Daily's film room of Nigel Williams-Goss: 

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