Making the Leap

Two years, two Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships. All Rich Williams, junior at Manhattan knows is winning.

But perhaps lost in the glory and euphoria of winning consecutive team titles has been the appreciation for Williams the individual, and his talent. This season, said talent has been on full display, resulting in a career-year for Williams, who has posted averages of 14.4 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game.

And now Williams, a key member off of Manhattan’s bench, might have some individual hardware to add to his collection, as the 6-foot-5 swingman has made a case for himself as the MAAC’s Sixth Man of the Year.

“I’m a strong believer in myself,” Williams said in a phone interview. “I’m not the type to show it, but I always believed that with the opportunity, I always knew that when guys like Rhamel [Brown] and George [Beamon] would leave I’d get a better chance to play more. I’ve just been waiting and I’m just happy that it’s paying off. I wish we could win more obviously, but I’m happy.”

Williams got his opportunity early in the season, after injuries and team defections trimmed Manhattan’s roster to 10, with only eight players as part of the rotation.

“I just know that with the circumstances that we are in right now and being here for three years, I had to step it up,” Williams said. “Just step it up and be more of a leader, so that’s been my role with the circumstances.”

The lack of bodies has forced Williams to take on a heavier load and often play out of position. At 6-foot-5, Williams has had to play as a stretch four, battling against bigger forwards. However, the height difference has had little to no effect on Williams, who is among the MAAC leaders in rebounds per game with 6.1, and has taken advantage of slower players guarding him on offense.

“He goes up and he just gets it,” Shane Richards, Manhattan’s leading scorer said about Williams’ rebounding ability. “He’s a very athletic kid and I think he thrives at the four really. He has dudes guarding him that really can’t check him. He’s too fast for them and he has a lot of big guys guarding him that really have no business guarding him.”

Williams has accepted a role off the bench, as the energizer bunny, a guy head coach Steve Masiello said he wants to see check in and change the tempo of the game for the Jaspers.

“When I get in the game I’m out there just to uplift my teammates and provide energy,” Williams said. “When I’m in the game and it’s flat, when I do get in the game I try to be the most energetic and just uplift my teammates.”

Although Williams’ numbers might resemble those of a starter, it is off the bench he has found his niche. A position many players are not willing to accept.

“When it comes to the team, I’m willing to do whatever it takes,” Williams said. “Coming off the bench or starting … I’m just all about what it takes to win.”

Williams’ leap comes to no surprise to Masiello, who said he knew Williams would have a bigger impact this season. What surprises Masiello is how much Williams improved, given Manhattan’s trend to improve from junior to senior year, and not sophomore to junior year. In past seasons, Emmy Andujar, Ashton Pankey and Shane Richards went from key contributors their junior years, to the first or second options their senior years.

“He is playing out of position and he is doing a lot of things that we’re asking him to do that maybe he’s not natural at,” Masiello said, “so I think when we have the ability to play him more in a natural position, things are going to come a little easier to him. I think this is just the beginning for him.”

Williams’ strongest competition for the Sixth Man award is Nico Clareth, the rookie guard for the Siena Saints, who averages 13.1 points per game, 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Siena’s 20-11 record could be a deciding factor in Clareth getting the nod over Williams, but Clareth’s front-runner position for MAAC Rookie of the Year could benefit Williams.

“I just think it would be great for him to win that,” Richards said about Williams winning the Sixth Man of the Year. “That’s a great award to win, especially from the two previous years that Rich [Williams] has had. He’s obviously been a part of the team, but he hasn’t made as big of an impact as he has this year, so I think that really would validate his success.”

But although there’s a possibility he wins the award, Williams said he has his sights set on the ultimate team award: a MAAC championship. Still, despite Williams’ humbleness, Masiello knows winning the award would be welcoming news for Williams.

“I’m not going to sit here and say people don’t want individual awards,” Masiello said. “Obviously, it’s always nice to be recognized, but I think one of the special things about Rich [Williams] is he’s been spoiled with two MAAC championships and that’s kind of all he knows. … If he gets Sixth Man, terrific, but he has one thing on his mind and I think that’s the right attitude.”

The MAAC individual awards are released Friday, but even if Williams doesn’t win any hardware, his leap from sophomore to junior year is something Masiello appreciates.

“I just think he’s stuck with the process,” Masiello said about Williams. “He hasn’t always been told what he wanted to hear or what was easy to hear, but he processed what he needed to do to get better. … I think he could’ve played more, maybe had more of an impact as a younger player in this program, but it wouldn’t have been success that lasted. I think now his success will last. He’s having a great junior year and I think that’s only going to set him up for an even better senior year.”