Gabby Williams putting finishing touches on stellar UConn career

AP Photo/Chris Szagola

Gabby Williams has never been a fan of boxes, likely because she has never fit into one.

The UConn senior is a position-less player in a position-oriented game, making her an enigma in a sport that seems desperate to define her.

In her 3½-year career with the Huskies, Williams has evolved into one of the most dynamic all-around players in women's basketball. An All-American projected to be a top-five pick in the upcoming WNBA draft, Williams combines a deeply versatile skill set with an uncanny athleticism. Last season, she led the country's top-ranked team in steals and assists, was second in blocks and rebounds and third in scoring.

"She is unlike anybody else in the country," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I would challenge anybody around the country to find anybody who makes as many big plays as Gabby makes and does more to help a team at both ends of the floor."

A two-time national champion who has helped UConn to a 20-0 start this season, Williams has an effortless swagger. It's a confidence that stems from what she has been able to accomplish at a storied program and on talent-congested rosters that once made Williams doubt she could make an impact at UConn.

A freshman alongside All-Americans Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, Morgan Tuck and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Williams struggled to carve out her place. She found herself falling back, unsatisfied with her influence and spending a lot of time on the bench.

"It's really easy to come in and realize they don't need me so I'm not even going to try," said Williams, a native of Sparks, Nevada. "I see a lot of freshmen go through that now and I wish I could just shake it out of them because I never shook it out of myself. I think I would have had a better start to my career if I had owned up to what I could do."

"I would challenge anybody around the country to find anybody who makes as many big plays as Gabby makes and does more to help a team at both ends of the floor." Geno Auriemma

Buried within a roster that had little trouble scoring, Williams leaned on her defense to separate herself. She averaged 15.6 minutes her freshman season, and led the Huskies in rebounds in six games. Defense remains her calling card.

"Freshman year [my defense] got me off the bench, sophomore year it allowed me to be the spark, and then last year it made me a leader," said Williams, the 2017 Women's Basketball Coaches Association national defensive player of the year. "I think it's what has put me in the position that I am today."

This season got off to a bit of a rocky start. Williams battled "debilitating" migraines early on and a flare-up of an existing hip flexor injury. She struggled to find a consistent rhythm, her hip at times impairing her leaping ability, and she was making careless passes. On Nov. 19 against Maryland, she had 10 turnovers.

"I kept trying to make all these home run plays ... and then all of a sudden I was getting double-digit turnovers," said Williams, who over the opening six games of the season had a 0.95 assist-turnover ratio.

The adjustment was simple: play smarter, revert to fundamentals and build herself back up. Against Tulsa on Saturday, Williams split defenders on set plays and in transition with textbook bounce passes, part of a nine-assist performance. Over the past 14 games, her assist-turnover ratio is 2.59. Through 20 games, Williams is averaging 10.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists.

Undersized, with big expectations

As an analyst during a recent broadcast, former UConn All-American Sue Bird said it simplest: "Gabby Williams is a tweener."

Williams holds one of just five triple-doubles in UConn history -- 16 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists against Eastern Carolina in January 2017 -- and there's little doubt she would have added a handful of them last season alone if she averaged at least 30 minutes per game.

But try to sum up Williams' contributions solely on numbers and you miss the deflections, altered and contested shots, and high post screens, not to mention William's most impressive intangible: her ability to guard any position on the floor. It was especially crucial for the undersized Huskies last season, and on a nightly basis, it means an exhausting matchup against some of the best frontcourt players in the country, many of whom own a size advantage over the 5-foot-11 Williams.

"Gabby is in a unique position compared to almost everyone else in the country in that she is giving up a lot of size and it is a battle every night for her," said Auriemma, who last season tasked Williams with matching up with the likes of 6-5 A'ja Wilson of South Carolina and 6-7 Teaira McCowan of Mississippi State.

"Guarding someone six inches bigger than you is not a stat," Williams joked. "Being as undersized as we were, I knew that someone had to do it. I knew that what I was doing was going to help us win the game."

So it's ironic, then, that the player who will be forever associated with overcoming Williams' defensive prowess stands at just 5-5.

The night Morgan William and Mississippi State knocked off top-ranked UConn in last year's national semifinal, ending the Huskies' NCAA-record 111-game winning streak, is a moment Williams will never be allowed to forget.

In fact, she replays the 12.3-second sequence often. She divides the sequence into a succession of decisions, each one leading to the next, every decision yielding a different consequence.

Hedge harder on center McCowan, or step out on William? Run up to pressure William or give her space to keep her in front of you?

They're profound split-second calculations which Williams makes in an instant until the clock expires and all that's left is the fateful outcome.

It's her outstretched arm that lives in the framed snapshot, and it's her team that, despite defying doubters over the course of the season, was outplayed that Saturday night in Dallas. Williams will admit the latter, and she has chosen to shoulder much of the loss.

"Defensively, we weren't great that game and that's supposed to be my thing," Williams said. "I definitely take a lot of responsibility."

In hindsight, Williams said, she played the final possession on William "too safe." William drove for a layup on the final possession of the fourth quarter, and that's what Williams was anticipating again. William had just enough separation to rise for her shot at the buzzer.

"It sucks that the picture is over me," Williams said. "I've accepted that I'm going to be talking about it for the rest of my life."

'Everything I did was important'

The tweener identity Williams assumes on the court translates almost unequivocally off the floor. On one hand, Williams is like many; she likes to travel, Michael Jackson sits on her Mount Rushmore of musical artists and she's not quite sure how the "non-hateable" Michael B. Jordan will pull off playing a villain in the upcoming "Black Panther" movie. The other side of Williams mixes a vegan diet, an appreciation of Italian history and high renaissance art, likely shared more by Auriemma than her teammates, vinyl music and a love of superheroes.

And basketball doesn't always come first. When Williams unlaces her sneakers after each game, she's another UConn student, studying urban and community studies. Williams closely followed the social justice protests that were spurred by Colin Kaepernick and eventually crossed into all of sports.

"People think that when you're an athlete, you're protected, and that's just not true," said Williams, whose favorite class at UConn is African Americans and Social Protest. "When I leave the court, I am not a basketball player anymore, you know? The things that happen to any other African-American or to any woman or African-American woman or whatever it is, it can happen to me -- I'm just as vulnerable. When I have kids, they are going to be vulnerable, too."

As a member one of the most high-profile teams in all of college basketball, Williams understands the platform she has in front of her. She helped bring the national conversation and her studies into the UConn locker room. And while the team discussed staging a demonstration, ultimately it decided against one.

"Whatever we do it has to be 100 percent as a team, it has to be completely committed into it," Williams said. "The national anthem thing is tough, we decided as a team to do what we always do and not change anything."

There's little doubt that Williams' skill set will translate to the next level, but at least one WNBA head coach says Williams must make herself a viable shooting threat.

"Gabby does have limited range, she does not look for or shoot perimeter shots well, but is an excellent driver and finisher from anywhere," said the coach, who also praised Williams' motor at both ends. "[She'll have to] improve in that area so that defenses will have to guard her on the perimeter or clog things up."

The feedback is nothing new for Williams, who has heard much of the same from Auriemma.

"Don't come out here if you're not going to look for that," he has said to Williams.

Should Williams maintain her season averages, she'll likely end her UConn career as one of the best all-around Huskies in program history. She is projected to finish in the top 10 in games played and steals, top six in rebounding, top 15 in assists, top 20 in blocks and top 25 in scoring. Only one other UConn player has accomplished such an all-around feat: Maya Moore.

But it's another UConn legend that Williams aspires to emulate. Former point guard Jen Rizzotti was part of UConn's first championship team in 1995 and won the Wade Trophy in 1996 while averaging just 11 points. Auriemma, Williams said, has always spoken highly of Rizzotti, and explained it was what she did outside of the stat sheet that made her a great player.

"I hope my legacy here is something like that," Williams said. "Something that, you know, not everything I did was tangible or had a number to it. But everything I did was important."