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Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams speaks softly, carries big game

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 16, 2018, 9:54 p.m.

Gonzaga  forward Johnathan Williams  reacts after scoring against Saint Mary’s  on  Feb. 10  in Moraga, California. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams reacts after scoring against Saint Mary’s on Feb. 10 in Moraga, California. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Johnathan Williams will be right where he wants to be Saturday for Gonzaga’s Senior Night matchup against Pepperdine.

The senior forward will be at the McCarthey Athletic Center, where he’s spent innumerable hours working on his game in practice and on his own. A full house of 6,000 will be on hand and Williams went out of his way earlier this week to thank Gonzaga’s fan base for the warm welcome he received after transferring from Missouri.

And Williams, known as ‘J3’, will be surrounded by family.

There’s his gregarious father Johnny (J1). There’s his mom, Barbara, who operates two day care facilities in the family’s hometown of Memphis. And there’s older brother Johnny (J2), who played at George Mason and moved to Spokane when J3 relocated.

J3 and J1 are opposites when it comes to word count. J1, retired from a long-time career working for the federal government, is the life of the party.

“Pops has a lot more to say than son,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson said with a smile.

“He’s going to have a good time,” said J3, who admits J1’s chattiness didn’t rub off on him.

J2 lives near the Spokane Arena. J3 visits often and “we talk about everything. He’s like my coach as well. He’s been in my situation and he played in the NCAA Tournament.”

Williams gushes about his mom.

“She was able to start her own business in the 1990s when it was unheard of for a woman to start her own business,” said Williams, who will share the Senior Night stage with guard Silas Melson and manager-turned-player Brian Pete. “And she’s succeeded. I look up to her.”

When Williams was diagnosed with a speech impediment as a youngster, Barbara made her son practice pronouncing words over and over. Fellow students picked on Williams, but that slowly went away as the straight-A student’s speech patterns improved.

“It was really tough, but my mom worked with me on a daily basis. I’m a pretty good talker now, but it took a long time to get over that,” Williams said. “It’s probably one of the reasons I’m a pretty quiet guy.”

Perhaps not all that quiet. Neither player remembers it, but there is evidence of Williams giving point guard Josh Perkins an earful leaving the court at halftime of a recent home game.

“Get me the ball,” TV cameras caught Williams saying forcefully.

“When he has to, when he’s feeling it, he’s not shy about letting us know he needs the ball,” Perkins said. “If he ever says that, he’s never wrong.”

Williams came onto Gonzaga’s radar with the pending exit of senior Kyle Wiltjer following the 2016 season. The Zags also lost sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis, who opted to turn pro.

Williams has made a whole lot of noise on the court. The Zags are 61-6 in his two seasons. They nearly won a national championship last year with Williams earning most outstanding player honors in the West Regional. Williams assumed a larger role this season and the Zags are starting to look like a team capable of a long run in March.

“We needed to replace (Kyle) with an elite ‘4’ man and obviously he’s been that,” Michaelson said. “A really high-level player that can impact the game at both ends and one of the special rebounders in college basketball. He’s really delivered.”

Off the court, too. Williams is a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award, which recognizes student-athletes who excel in the community, classroom, character and competition.

“Sweetheart of a guy, great character, comes from a really strong, supportive family,” coach Mark Few said.

If the award included cooking, Williams would probably be a shoo-in. Chef Williams can make an assortment of dinners and his made-from-scratch cookies “are honestly the best I’ve ever had,” teammate and former roommate Jeremy Jones said.

Williams is closing his senior season in style. He leads the team in scoring (13.4) and rebounding (7.9). He has five straight double-doubles as the Zags pursue another WCC title.

“I hope he’s starting to play with that special urgency that seniors get, and yet that calming confidence of having been there and done that,” Few said. “He’s performed on the biggest stage at a really high level.”

Williams has very Williams-esque plans for Senior Night.

“I’m just going to be me,” he said. “Just chilling.”

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