ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Kendall Williams was once Ben Howland’s youngest recruit at UCLA.
But after an injury in Williams’ junior season of high school slowed the progress of his otherwise stellar high school career, his family was hearing the rumblings. They heard from several people that Howland, then the UCLA head coach, had been shopping the scholarship promised to Williams around to other players.
“First he said don’t worry about it, but we kept hearing things. Finally I called Ben Howland up and said we need to know the truth,” said Robert Williams, Kendall’s father. “He said, ‘Robert, I think it’s best that we go our separate ways.’ I said if that’s your opinion, you need to call the kid and tell him you’re pulling his scholarship. I didn’t want to play the political speak about us both agreeing to go separate ways. I wanted it out there what was happening.”
It wasn’t what Kendall Williams wanted to hear, but then he wasn’t lacking alternative opportunities either. With several other Pac-12 offers still in play and, according to father and son, one from the Florida Gators, it was the pitch of then-associate head coach and current New Mexico head coach Craig Neal that opened their eyes to a whole other path.
“I told him when I recruited him I thought he could be special,” Neal said. “I really thought that. My biggest sell to him was to come here and do something nobody else has done. It’s kind of a blessing because it’s come true.”
Williams, the 2013 Mountain West Player of the Year and current Bob Cousy Award finalist for top guard in the country, is already the all-time assists leader in league history. He sits in either the top 10 or top five of numerous University of New Mexico career statistical categories.
Oh yeah, and then there’s the winning. The four-year starter has 102 career victories, two regular-season conference championship rings, two league tournament titles and two NCAA Tournament appearances, with a third almost assuredly coming in less than two weeks.
So is the California kid with NBA aspirations happy he ended up leaving his home state to wear a cherry-and-silver jersey for the past 131 games, 126 of them as a starter?
“How can you not be?” Williams said, flashing that huge, confident smile that has endeared him to so many Lobo fans, while also making his impending departure a relief to league opponents.
“This was the perfect situation for me. I couldn’t be happier with the four years I’ve been able to play here.”