Late in January and early in February, the Newman boys basketball team found itself in a rough spot. The Comets would be without two-time all-state center Devon House due to a swollen Achilles for a couple of weeks.
With the senior big man who averaged 18 points per game out of the picture, the Comets had to turn to someone else to be the keystone of the team both offensively and defensively. They turned to sophomore guard Marcus Williams, the 2019-20 Sauk Valley Media Player of the Year.
In the first game without House, a 71-50 win over Bureau Valley, Williams scored 13. The next night, in a loss to a loaded Winnebago team, Williams had 27.
Williams found inspiration not only in having played alongside House, but also in a Hall of Fame player who was killed days after House was injured.
“With the passing of Kobe, with his Mamba mentality, I had to get into that mode a lot during that stretch where we didn’t have Devon,” Williams said. “Definitely wanted to just go in and show that we were the better team.
“I had to step up and be a leader, being the one talking out on the court, being the one to pick everybody else up,” he said. “I’ve always been in the leadership role, even at a young age, whether it was soccer or baseball. It wasn’t a new phase to me, but it was my first time on the varsity level. I feel that prepared me for next year, being that I’m going to have to step up and be that leader next year. That stretch, it did suck having him out, but I feel it helped our team grow.”
That stretch with House out of action also saw Newman coach Ray Sharp completely reinvent how the Comets played. Connor McBride had to play more in the post after being out on the perimeter earlier in the year. Suddenly there was a lot more on the shoulders of players like Luke Jungerman, Jake Ackman and Andrew Velasquez.
“Our tempo changed,” Williams said. “We wanted to push the ball up, run break, get those fast corner 3s or fast-break layups. It definitely sped up, which worked in my favor because I like to play fast.”
Williams did not have his role change much in the time House was out of action; he still was driving to the rim on offense and working the 1-3-1 on defense, disrupting everything other teams were trying to do.
Where his role did change was in terms of leadership. But then, that was a role he was trying to take on a bit more anyway.
“Just being a leader on the court, leading by example, playing his game and just playing our game as a team,” House said.
The sophomore averaged 20.5 points per game, a team high, as well as 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 steals and 2.5 assists. His ability on offense meant defenses couldn’t just focus on the All-State center elsewhere on the floor.
“If he gets double-teamed, I know he’s going to find the open player, whether it’s me or one of our teammates,” Williams said. “It’s also just fun to watch him. Sometimes when I throw the ball into the post, I’ll just watch him go to work, watch him body up on those bigger posts and make those moves under the basket. It’s really fun to watch.”
“He played really hard,” House said. “He gets to the basket and scores at will. He’s just hard to stop. Great effort all game. Great intensity and just keeps us playing hard, keeps the momentum going and helps us get the win.”
Williams became a major force for the Comets not only offensively, but also defensively. Playing at the top of Newman’s 1-3-1 zone, Williams was able to disrupt passing lanesat the top of the key, often resulting in steals that led to layups for either him or a teammate on the other end.
“Whether it was me getting a tip ball on the top or a wing getting a steal, I just love those break-out layups,” Williams said. “Especially just trapping really hard. I feel like getting up in their grill really gets me going. After I start bumping into them and getting those little touches, they start to get annoyed. That’s when they start making those mental mistakes.”
Williams was making an impact last year as well, even stepping into a program where the bar was set very high by a third-place finish at state in Class 1A the year before.
He stepped into a roster where players like House were already established, and made an immediate impact as a freshman, averaging 10.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game.
“Coming off a state trip and having a lot of great players like Devon and Brycen [Bartel] and Jake and Connor, definitely it was intimidating at first,” he said. “But the Williams factor kind of kicked in, realizing I’m Travis’ brother and I’ve been doing the same stuff he’s been doing, just at a younger level. I felt like going in with that chip on my shoulder made it easier to adapt to the game.”
Travis Williams had teamed with House as the other half of the one-two punch in the low post that helped Newman take third at state in 2018. It was also Travis who made Marcus want to play in the first place.
“Watching him play in fifth grade, watching him make a couple big shots in middle school, it got me really excited for when it was going to be my turn in fifth grade,” Marcus said. “I didn’t really start playing any YMCA ball or anything like that in third or fourth grade. I started playing through my school in fifth grade. From there, I would be outside after school, shooting on the outside courts all the time, just running up and down. Even at recess, I would just be playing basketball.”
For Marcus, that first taste of basketball came in the driveway, where his older brother had no plans to go easy on him.
“I always tried to beat on him as best I could,” Travis said. “He’s always been very quick. He was always usually bigger and stronger than everyone else when he was younger, so it’s been really cool to see him transform his game. Now he’s not the biggest or the strongest, so seeing him still perform and put up the way he does is really cool to watch.”
Marcus also got something else out of Travis. Once his older brother had graduated and was away at college, Marcus was able to lean on him from time to time for advice. As the younger Williams started to grow into his role on Newman’s varsity team, he had two guys who had been a part of it for years just a phone call away.
“[House] and my brother have been the biggest mentors for me,” Marcus said. “Transitioning from middle school to high school, and then this year moving into that second leadership spot after Devon kind of helped me. Having long talks with them about what the future’s going to hold has really helped.”
It was talks with his brother that helped Marcus get through those varsity practices when he was a freshman, making the move from a middle school practice that focused more on shooting to one of Sharp’s varsity practices that went all-out. Travis was able to assure his brother that he would get used to it.
And where his brother couldn’t help him, House could.
“It’s pretty cool to see Devon show him how to beat a double-team,” Travis said. “I never really got a lot of that. I got some of that. It’s really cool to see Devon show him how to do it, whether it’s with a skill move down low or a dribble move out on the top.”
While House and Travis Williams were steady presences in the low post for Newman, Marcus Williams spends more of his time these days at guard, though it wasn’t always like that. During his middle school days at St. Mary’s in Dixon, he was still trying to attack the rim, just as he does now, but he was also mixing it up more in the paint.
“It was a lot more rebounding, a lot more defense, but in the seventh- and eighth-grade years, I turned into that main scorer,” he said. “I was trying to improve my game that eighth-grade year shooting on the outside a lot more, trying to finish from both sides of the rim, trying to penetrate through the defense and making the right decisions.”
Back then, he was often one of the bigger and stronger guys on the floor. That soon changed.
“My seventh-grade year, I was playing against Sterling and I played against Trevon [Jordan], and he was 6-2 at the time,” Williams said. “That was my first time realizing I wasn’t going to be the biggest player on the court.”
So he was able to transition to use his speed and athleticism more. And that came in handy once he got into high school.
“He impacted us very well,” House said. “It helped defenders stay off of me and get other people open shots. Just helping us open up the court.”
In his high school debut, a win over North Boone in the Oregon Tournament in 2018, he scored seven points, then exploded for 16 in a win over West Carroll 2 days later, and capped off the Oregon Tournament with a 19-point game in a win over the host Hawks.
“I could have been just another freshman playing on the freshman team, but I wanted to prove myself on varsity, and I feel like I did that,” he said.
He was able to keep that up as a sophomore, turning into one of the area’s more prolific scorers while also dishing out plenty of assists and nabbing plenty of steals.
A couple of times this winter, the guy who gave him such a hard time in the driveway years ago, and who was on the other end of the phone to encourage him to keep going last year, was able to see the kind of player his little brother had become.
“Just seeing their team as a whole, they were really good, they were scrappy, it was fun to watch,” Travis said. “Marcus, just seeing his heart out there. He really puts his whole heart and passion. Basketball’s his No. 1 passion, and he definitely shows it on the court by his intensity and the heart he plays with.”
With House and McBride graduating, Marcus Williams knows that next year as a junior, there will be even more on his shoulders.
He still wants to work on some things, like his shooting ability from the outside.
“Teams are going to try to hone in on me next year,” he said. “I have to be able to shoot from the outside, so that way, I’m an inside-outside player, and I’ll be able to, if they come at me with a double-team, pass out to one of the open players.”