Point guard Williams re-emerges for Hawkeyes

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — First, Jordan Bohannon took Christian Williams’ advice. Then he took his minutes.

It’s been a trying year for Iowa’s point guard tandem — but particularly for Williams, the sophomore who began the year as the Hawkeyes’ starter.

Freshman Bohannon was handed the reins in the seventh game, at Notre Dame.

Iowa's Christian Williams goes up for a shot during the Hawkeyes' game against Delaware State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016.

Williams admitted Monday that was the low point for him. He struggled to find some perspective.

“Just looking at it from all aspects, just knowing that it’s probably best for the team,” Williams said. “And then I can’t really think about it too much because I don’t want to affect the team in a negative way.”

Williams has re-emerged in recent games as a defensive force, spelling Bohannon for long stretches while producing six points, four steals, three assists and two rebounds in losses to Michigan State and Illinois. It’s an impact he will look to continue at 8 p.m. Tuesday as Iowa (14-13, 6-8 Big Ten Conference) tries to snap a three-game skid when it hosts Indiana. The Hoosiers (15-12, 5-9) are on a four-game losing streak. The game will be broadcast by ESPN.

“His length just brings a whole other dimension to our games. So when he’s able to come in and play like that, it honestly opens my game back up. Because when I come in, everyone’s just tired from him being on the defensive end and getting after it,” Bohannon said of Williams.

“It just drains other teams because they’re worried so much about him.”

Bohannon and Williams offer the starkest of contrasts as point guards. Bohannon, just 6-feet tall, is the consummate gunner, hoisting 158 3-point attempts while gobbling up a team-leading 769 minutes. In his debut as a starter against the Fighting Irish, he made 7 of 15 from the arc for a season-high 23 points.

Williams is a 6-5 ballhawk, a pirate of the passing lanes on the perimeter, but a reluctant shooter. He is third on the team with 23 steals, but is just 2 of 12 from the 3-point line and averages 2.4 points per game.

Williams played 19.3 minutes a game while starting, but just 11.8 in the next 21 contests as Bohannon put his stamp on the team. Five times in Big Ten play, Williams failed to record a single point. Things bottomed out in a home loss to Maryland, when he played a mere two minutes and matched that total with two turnovers.

But Williams was also one of the first players to become a mentor to Bohannon when he arrived on campus after a standout prep career at Linn-Mar (senior guard Peter Jok was the other). Bohannon recalled a struggle to adjust to the college game and making numerous mistakes in practice.

Williams pulled him aside. The message: “He said, ‘It will come to you once things slow down.’ And things are starting to slow down. It helped a lot just hearing that from him,” Bohannon said.

So it wasn’t pleasant when he had to watch Williams accept a backup role just two weeks into the season. Then, it was Bohannon’s turn to offer words of inspiration.

“I could tell he was kind of low after that,” Bohannon said. “But he kept working. He stayed positive. Every single second in practice, he’s working as hard as he can. And I know he’s capable of big games.

“He could have resented me. Most teams, you would have players like that, where they kind of shove the freshmen under the bus. But all these guys have been really picking us up ever since we got here.”

Bohannon’s worst game was in the 77-66 loss at Michigan State on Feb. 11. He got into foul trouble, missed all six of his 3-point attempts, and was held scoreless for the only time this season.

Williams, meanwhile, checked in and promptly stole the ball three times in a 31-second span to spark an Iowa rally.

“That was pretty impressive,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “I think the more you see him get confidence, the more kinds of things like that he'll do; it has great impact on our team when he does that. He's very well-liked and very well-respected on the team, so the guys are rooting for him.”

The confidence doesn’t yet extend to the offensive end. Williams hasn’t made a 3-pointer since the third game of the season. He did attempt one Saturday in a 70-66 loss to Illinois, but had to rush it and saw it bounce off the rim.

Williams said assistant coach Kirk Speraw has been working with him to alter his shooting form, seeking to get more arc on his shots while holding his follow-through longer. He still hopes to become a perimeter threat in his final two college seasons.

What’s been more troubling this year is the number of times Williams has helped the Hawkeyes get in transition only to miss a layup. It happened again against Illinois, although Jok was there for the putback.

“I’m not really sure what it is. Probably just a lack of focus,” said Williams, who is shooting 32.9 percent from the field (26 of 79). “Once I get around the rim, I worry about shot-blockers. But I’ve been trying to work on that.”

McCaffery is focusing more on what Williams can do.

“He's a really good offensive rebounder, so you've got to let him go a little bit and get others to come back and protect the basket,” McCaffery said. “He's got kind of a unique game that way. And you can switch more with him and he can guard the post. He can guard 6-foot-7 wings.”