MOREHEAD CITY — West Carteret High School senior boys basketball player J.J. Williams had a pretty good reason for missing a handful of open gym sessions last week.
The returning 3A Coastal Conference Player of the Year was at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix for the first-ever NCAA College Basketball Academy, running Tuesday through Thursday, July 22-25.
A part of the NCAA’s recent reforms to college basketball, the new camp invited up to 2,400 would-be college players. All expenses for the participants and one chaperone were paid for by the NCAA.
“I really liked it,” Williams said. “I got to meet a lot of new people and get some more exposure. It was a great chance to play, not just East Coast guys, but players from the West Coast.”
In order to attend the camp, coaches had to nominate high school players. Most were soon-to-be juniors or seniors, but select sophomores were also allowed to participate in the camp.
Williams’ official chaperone was his mother, Shannon Williams. His father, Dexter Williams, also attended. The senior Williams is well known in the county for his annual camp, his stint as head boys basketball coach at Croatan High School and his playing days with the “Harlem Legends,” an all-star cast of Harlem Globetrotters.
The national camp was split into four locations, including the University of Houston for the South, the University of Illinois for the Midwest, the University of Connecticut for the East and Grand Canyon University for the West.
Normally, Williams would have made the trip to Connecticut, but the East location filled up fast, and players from North Carolina and Florida were re-allocated to the West location.
“It was my first time on the West Coast,” Williams said. “It was fun. It was really hot out there. It’s a dry heat, like when you’re riding around in a car without air conditioning.”
The actual camp started that Wednesday, while players arrived Tuesday and participated in combine-like measurements and tests.
Schedules for players typically began at 7 a.m. with breakfast, followed by stations, situational game drills and then extra skill work. After that, players attended life skill classes with guest speakers, followed by multiple games in the afternoon.
“It was really fun,” Williams said. “In the mornings, we did drills and stuff like that, and toward the afternoon, we played. We were put on different teams. I got paired up with a lot of West Coast players, and we just played other teams.”
The final day of the camp was spent listening to NBA representatives spell out the difficulties in reaching the pro league. The day before, campers got the rundown on life as a college athlete.
“They taught us about things we may have to deal with as college athletes, such as being careful on social media accounts and things like that,” Williams said.
Through it all, Williams was being observed by a mix of Division I North Carolina schools and out-of-state universities, including High Point University, Western Carolina University, College of Charleston and Houston Baptist University.
“That was really exciting to see them out there watching me play,” Williams said. “I didn’t know a thing about Houston Baptist before this week.”
Williams has the basketball acumen and the stats to back up his Division I aspirations. For now, though, he is only focused on his upcoming senior season at West.
“I’m not too worried about it right now,” he said. “I can see myself going to any of those schools. Whether I get offered before or after the season, I’m just going to stay focused on playing my game and getting better.”
Williams played his freshman season at Arendell Parrott Academy in Kinston under current Ashley coach Wells Gulledge. He transferred to West as a sophomore, playing the next two years under Craig McClanahan before the longtime coach retired this spring. Now he is under his third head coach in four years with Mark Mansfield.
“Mark has been great so far,” Williams said. “I’m really excited about this season. People have been telling us we won’t be as good as we were last year, but they’re wrong. We’re going to surprise some people. Just watch.”
The Patriots snapped a 30-year drought without a conference championship last season with an 8-2 record in the Coastal. They finished 19-6 and advanced to the state playoffs. The team graduated six seniors but returned three of its top four scorers, including Williams.
As a junior, Williams led the Patriots in points per game (17.4), assists (3.9), steals (2.2), three-pointers (59) and free throws (64). His 54 percent adjusted field goal percentage also ranked second on the team by a single point.
The Patriots got their first action under Mansfield at the end of June in the East Coast Invitational in Jacksonville, featuring some of the best teams in the eastern part of the state.
“We played really well,” Williams said. “We came in first in our pool. We ended up beating Kinston by three points. We got to the final four in the tournament and lost to South Central, which won the state (4A) tournament last year.”