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Benny Williams returns to Syracuse more confident as a junior: ‘I know I can shoot the ball’

Benny Williams returns to Syracuse for a third year, only this time he’ll play for the head coach that recruited him out of high school.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Second Round - Syracuse vs Wake Forest Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Benny Williams stands tall in front of multiple members of the media seemingly more mature heading into his junior season. He fields various questions — some difficult, some not — and answers in a resolute tone. He sounds sure of himself. It’s a more subtle sign of growth from Williams as opposed to the more outwardly apparent 25 pounds he’s added to his frame since enrolling at Syracuse as a freshman.

Williams came to Syracuse as a fresh-faced, consensus top-40 recruit in a one-man recruiting class. In the time since he’s undergone significant growth following two arduous seasons of college basketball, both beset with their own inherent difficulties as a member of the storied Orange program which has fallen short of usual benchmarks by every measure.

In some ways, Williams’ college career hasn’t gone according to his plan. After a season categorized with struggles and a few peaks, Williams fractured his left tibia during his freshman year in a game at North Carolina that caused him to miss the remainder of the season. In other ways, Williams’ path has followed the usual trajectory of growth for a college basketball player. He moved to a starting role during his sophomore season and had some strong moments, he just needs to be consistent and bring it on a nightly basis. In another sign of maturity, Williams hasn’t blamed anyone for the expectations others have placed upon him. He’s only tried to get better.

The at times maligned Williams has taken heat at various points of his Syracuse career. Former head coach Jim Boeheim could be harsh on certain players; Williams was one of them. That harshness, in its own way, could be viewed as the ultimate compliment from the Hall of Famer. It meant he thought certain players could take it, yes. But it’s also as if Boeheim had already understood an unrealized potential in a player — perhaps one that they hadn’t quite seen in themself yet. What sometimes gets lost in translation from the outside looking in was this: That was just Boeheim’s way of motivating players and getting them to close the gap.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 19 Northeastern at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Still, it didn’t always work. It’s not exactly fun being on the receiving end of a business conversation from Boeheim. If Williams harbors any resentment, he doesn’t show signs.

“It was great playing for Boeheim,” Williams declared. “It was a dream come true. From a kid, watching guys like Jerami Grant and Dion Waiters and people like that. Just to see him every day and see what makes him great and all the legendary stories about him. It was an honor to play for Coach Boeheim.”

After his second career double-double against Boston College toward the end of last season, a tonal shift emerged. Boeheim publicly stated that Williams was the best forward on the team. In Syracuse’s final game of the season against Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament, Williams had 18 points, 11 rebounds and 5 steals. In his final post-game press conference, Boeheim was effusive in complimenting Williams while emphasizing that playing to potential is a process.

Williams tries to recapture the sentiment from last season which ended in that heartbreaking loss to Wake Forest, marking the end of a 47-year career.

“That was crazy. I can’t sugarcoat it at all,” Williams said. “We lost to Wake Forest and we found out a little bit after that.”

Wake Forest v Syracuse Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Williams always wanted to go to Syracuse from the time he was growing up, he shares. His older sister knew Jerami Grant from high school. Being from the DMV area, Williams has followed Grant’s basketball career closely and he grew up watching Syracuse. Williams got to see Grant in person when the Portland Trail Blazers forward returned to Syracuse over the summer. He never wanted to be anywhere else.

“I love it here,” Williams expressed. “It’s a real family here. Obviously my freshman year didn’t go to plan. And I had a little better season last year and just trying to make improvements, get one percent better every day.”

Williams politely rejected the opportunity to discuss last season’s personal day when he missed the Virginia game.

“I never thought about transferring through all the ups and downs that you may hear in the media and stuff like that. I’m Orange through and through,” Williams said.

In the offseason Williams worked to improve his jumpshot and finishing around the rim. He took a lot of shots over the summer, he says. He wants to step out more this year. Williams mentions how Buddy Boeheim, Cole Swider and Joe Girard were three of the best shooters he’s ever been around and noted even they had bad days at the office. But he wants to be a reliable threat from outside this year.

“I know I can shoot the ball. I’ve shown that, just getting to the point where it’s every day,” Williams said.

“He’s really worked on his game,” Autry said. “He’s improved his shot. He’s improved finishing around the basket. I think you’ll see his game expand a little bit more this year, being able to score inside, being able to score outside.”

Beyond that, Williams also wants to be consistent on the other end of the floor and bring a steady motor. Rebounding and defense are his main focuses in practice.

He’s excited to have NBA prospect Judah Mintz back at point guard, who Williams has had a longstanding relationship with. He’s also excited about new assist coach Brendan Straughn, who has deep ties to Team Takeover and the DMV area. He says Straughn has always given encouragement and positivity well before coming to Syracuse.

“We thought D-Nic [Demetris Nichols] was going to come back,” Williams said. “When I heard about Brendan coming I was super excited because he’s always shown love to me, just being in gyms and stuff.”

As he begins his junior season, Syracuse coaches think Williams can be the kind of player they saw toward the end of last season. He’s shown that he’s capable. Growth is a process and through the last couple years Williams has certainly evolved.

“Toward the end of last year you started to see, the last four or five games, he really started stepping into realizing his potential,” Autry said. “We just want to carry that over.”