Donovan Williams has played through pain almost his entire basketball career.
The sophomore guard’s left knee issues first began during his junior year of high school. But Williams played through the first injury. And then he played through his second knee injury during his senior year.
“Going all the way back into March and even back into last season, I just wasn’t 100%,” Williams said.
He even played through an injury during warmups for a Feb. 29 game in Lubbock before he reached his breaking point during halftime, head coach Shaka Smart said.
“He missed a dunk in the first half of that game, and I thought he hurt it then,” Smart said. “But he had already hurt it, actually in warmups … At halftime, he didn’t lace up and just said he’s not going to be able to go.”
It’s been a long journey back for Williams, who had just begun to receive heavy minutes as a freshman before his season was cut short. He had surgery on March 11 to implant four screws in his kneecap.
But, Williams said, the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed him valuable time to recover. He became an internet student of the game, focusing on growing his basketball IQ and watching Kobe Bryant videos and YouTube highlights.
“It gave me time to rest, heal up and really get myself into a position where I can be 100% healthy and in a better position to help the team,” Williams said. “The mental game is what I developed the most during the pandemic. … I wanted to grow my IQ so on the off chance that I don’t get back to being as athletic as I was in the past, I can still make a contribution.”
During a normal year, Williams said he would have had to rush his recovery. Even with the postponed start to the season, the guard wasn’t fully cleared for live play as Texas started practice.
In those practices, Williams had to get used to wearing a cumbersome brace. But he continued to push through the discomfort, just as he has had to do so often in his career, Smart said.
“Sometimes you run into players that are just stubborn about wanting to push the envelope and go further than maybe the doctors want them to go at that point,” Smart said. “That was definitely him. But I’ll give him a lot of credit for how hard he attacked.”
In a Dec. 20 game against Oklahoma State, Williams made his first significant contribution of his sophomore campaign. His four offensive rebounds and energy off the bench would prove crucial in Texas’s 77-74 win.
The backup guard is often the seventh or eighth man off the bench, behind the three starting guards: senior Matt Coleman, redshirt junior Andrew Jones and junior Courtney Ramey.
“Let’s say he’s out there with two out of the three (starting guards),” Smart said. “He doesn’t necessarily have to create.”
But Williams will have to shoot the ball better and capitalize on open looks to contribute in his role off the bench. The sophomore shot 2-of-9 against Kansas and then 0-for-4 against Iowa State. He stayed after the Iowa State game in the Frank Erwin Center to get shot after shot up. Smart said Williams has been spending a lot of time working on his shot.
It’s the same drive that pushed him to play through pain and through a long recovery.
“We see it in practice every day,” Ramey said. “I think the biggest thing for him is confidence and just believing in himself because we believe in him.”