WHEELING, W.Va. – Emmitt Williams is so not the type of player who craves positive reinforcement.
He’s well aware that hard work pays off, has put in said work during the offseason and is reaping the benefits of it this season with No. 6 IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.).
Still, now more than ever, when people recognize the strides he’s made since last season, Williams can’t help but smile.
Williams and IMG will get additional national exposure this weekend at the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. IMG plays Wasatch Academy on Monday at 2:15 p.m. ET .
“I’m not just playing for me anymore,” Williams said. “I’m trying harder this year, I’m not taking anything for granted and I’m leaving everything I have on the floor every game. This game means so much more to me now. I used to just play for fun.”
That all changed in July when Williams’ best friend Stef’An Strawder, whom he refers to as a brother, was killed in a shooting at Club Blu in Fort Myers, Fla.
“I’d just seen him in Vegas at a tournament,” Williams said of Strawder. “He was playing for a different team and he had just left. I was actually watching online when the shooting went down.”
Williams watched his friends’ Facebook live feeds, heard as shots rang out and began “checking to see if everyone was OK.”
“When I found out he passed away it hit me so hard,” Williams said. “Every time I go home I take flowers to his grave. He came into my life for a reason, and I want to be able to make him proud.”
Williams and Strawder played at Lehigh (Lehigh Acres, Fla.) two years ago and helped the Lightning reach the regional finals. Williams transferred to IMG Academy before last season.
“I wasn’t even gonna go to IMG, but Stef’An was the one who told me that going there was a good move,” said Williams, who has a tattoo on his left arm in honor of Strawder and wore a shirt honoring him during the City of Palms Classic in his return to Fort Myers. “I looked up to him. He was the one who helped me become known in basketball. He helped build my mentality, just telling me to try and dunk everything, so I trusted his opinion and left. I tried to bring him there with me.”
Williams set up a meeting between Strawder, who would have been a senior this season, and IMG Academy coach Vince Walden last April.
“I met him and thought he was a great kid,” Walden said. “We talked about everything he’d need to do in order to get here. I met with his mom and they were going through the process. He came back a couple more times and that’s how I knew he was serious. Unfortunately, he was killed before he could get here.”
Williams said even though he’s coping by throwing his all into the game to honor Strawder, a part of him still waits for Strawder to “pop up somewhere like ‘Ha, I gotcha! I’m right here man!’
“I know it sounds crazy,” Williams said. “But sometimes you just wish it was all a bad dream.”
Ascenders point guard Trevon Duval can relate to that feeling.
His teammate and friend Armoni Sexton was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2015.
“That’s a tough thing to deal with,” Duval said. “It’s important to talk about it and just be around friends who’ve got your back. That’s what I try and do for Emmitt. You can tell that something is driving him and giving him that motor to go hard. He literally goes hard every play now. Doesn’t take any plays off. It’s noticeable.”
College coaches concur.
Williams has everyone from Kansas to Florida to Louisville, among many others, all in hot pursuit.
Last Friday, after Williams scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds to lead the Ascenders past Westlake (Atlanta) 65-58 at the Cancer Research Classic, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins and his assistants waited to talk to Walden regarding Williams in the back hallway.
The first thing Huggins, who has offered Williams a scholarship, said to Walden after the initial hello was, “He’s been working.”
Williams, who was within earshot doing interviews, smiled.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY