ANAHEIM, Calif. – As Florida State crept closer to Gonzaga, shaving the Bulldogs’ second-half lead to six points, five points and finally four points, Johnathan Williams started to grow anxious, just like every other fan in the navy-blue-and-red sea behind Mark Few’s bench.
In a lot of ways, Williams was no different than every other GU ticketholder Thursday at the Honda Center, especially once it became clear the Zags weren’t simply going to coast past the Seminoles and punch their third Elite Eight ticket in five years.
Trembling hands. Sweaty palms. Nervous facial expressions.
Williams is adjusting to fandom these days. The Bulldogs pulled out a 72-58 win, but certainly made their former center uneasy for long stretches of the second half.
“I think any fan would get kind of nervous for a little bit,” Williams said.
On a two-way contract with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, the former GU big man made good use of his off day, traveling 35 miles south Thursday to see the Bulldogs take on the Seminoles in a matchup that was more than familiar to Williams.
He played 34 minutes, scoring eight points and grabbing 11 rebounds, in a 75-60 Sweet 16 loss to the Seminoles last March at the Staples Center – Williams’ full-time office these days.
Williams follows the Zags when he can – “being in the NBA it’s a lot of games, so you get kind of tired, but yeah, I try to catch a couple of games” – and gave them a thumbs-up after avenging last year’s defeat to FSU.
Even if it made him a little tense.
“(Josh Perkins) was able to control the game on the offensive side of the ball,” said Williams, who found his way into the GU locker room after the game. “We were able to get stops. I think it just came down to, we made more plays down the stretch, and we were able to keep that tempo and cushion a little bit. And we didn’t panic as much when they started making a little comeback.”
The mettle Gonzaga has shown this season isn’t surprising to Williams, nor is the dominance of the Bulldogs’ frontcourt, even after losing his production – 13.4 points per game and 8.5 rebounds in 2017-18.
Williams had a good sense of how effective Brandon Clarke could be for GU this season, well before most of the country knew his name. During practices and intersquad scrimmages in Spokane last season, Clarke, redshirting at the time, was typically the scout team player assigned to guard Williams.
“I saw it was coming, because he’s so athletically gifted and he has a great game,” Williams said. “He’s able to jump extremely high and make plays and just crash the glass and block shots. Obviously, he’s able to score, too, so he does a lot for this team, and I saw it last year during practice.”
Those tussles sharpened both players, said Clarke.
“Obviously for me, it was something that at first it was tough, but I kind of figured out how to guard him at a point,” Clarke said. “But obviously, still he would find ways to score on me, but it was great for me and him, because I felt like I could challenge him in the post and make him more crafty to score versus me.”
The Zags are in Williams’ backyard again for their Elite Eight contest against Texas Tech, but he’ll be traveling with the Lakers, who play in New Orleans the following day.
The power forward scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds in Salt Lake City less than 24 hours before GU played in the Sweet 16. He’s logged at least 15 minutes for the Lakers in six of the nine games he’s played since rejoining the team on a full-time basis March 6.
Before that, Williams had been playing primarily with the Lakers’ G-League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, though his two-way contract allows him to split time with both clubs. Overall, he’s played 16 games with the pro club during his rookie year. He scored a season-high 12 points in a season-high 25 minutes in a 124-123 loss to the New York Knicks on March 17.
“It’s been a blessing to be able to get that type of experience at the next level,” Williams said. “It’s been fun being able to play with those guys, all the great vets on the team. LeBron (James), (Rajon) Rondo, Tyson Chandler, JaVale McGee. Just being able to win for them, and see what can I do to make my game better.”
Asked to share his best James story, Williams declined, saying he hadn’t spent enough time around the 15-time All-Star.
But Williams described James as a “down-to-earth guy” who’s “easy to talk to about certain things.
“His knowledge of the game is incredible.”
If the Zags make the Final Four, Williams guaranteed he’d queue up a James story, admitting he’d probably have a few more to choose from by then.
“I don’t really have a great story just yet,” he said. “I’ll be able to tell you once they make it to the Final Four. You can get a story right quick.”
Until then, he’ll probably have to sweat out a few more nerve-wracking moments watching the Zags.
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