Commentary

Elizabeth Williams grabs spotlight early

Duke's 6-foot-3 freshman center averages team-high 14.2 points and 8.9 rebounds

Originally Published: January 27, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Duke's Elizabeth Williams talks about her freshman season.

DURHAM, N.C. -- Elizabeth Williams is the centerpiece of the youngest Duke team in more than a decade. But she spent a fair amount of time in her first semester of college thinking about growing old.

She took a sociology class about adulthood and aging, and it confirmed a mindset she pretty much already had.

"One of the interesting statistics in a paper I did was that people who had a positive outlook on life would live an average of 7.6 years longer than people who didn't," Williams said. "People who thought that growing old was a negative thing, their lifespan was shorter. I took that and thought it applies to me at a young age, too: 'Think of all these opportunities you're given, and really embrace them.'"

She surely is doing that. Williams, a 6-foot-3 freshman from Virginia Beach, Va., is leading the Blue Devils in scoring (14.2 ppg), rebounding (8.9) and blocked shots (68). She has already registered a triple-double -- 18 points, 16 rebounds, 12 blocks -- in a Jan. 6 victory at Wake Forest. And she's one of the 20 mid-season finalists announced Friday for the Wooden Award.

If you haven't seen Williams yet, don't miss Big Monday on ESPN2 (7 p.m. ET). She'll be one of the featured attractions as the No. 5 Blue Devils host No. 3 UConn at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Admittedly, you might be saying, "Yeah, whatever. I got my fill of UConn bludgeoning the ACC a couple of weeks ago, not to mention last year."

Indeed, the Huskies' 86-35 victory over North Carolina on Jan. 16 made for Blah Monday. Last season, UConn beat the Tar Heels by 26 points and won twice against Duke, the first time by 36 points and the second by 35.

[+] EnlargeElizabeth Williams
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireElizabeth Williams picked up wisdom beyond her years thanks in part to playing on the U-19 world championship team.

But Williams wasn't part of any of that; it's water already under a bridge she has yet to even cross. This matchup with the Huskies might be one which we all look back on someday and say, "Remember that game when Elizabeth Williams was a rookie against UConn?"

Or it could be a hard lesson, something even a player as gifted as Williams is going to experience at times. UConn has its own super freshman in Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, plus a history of going into supposedly hostile environments and defanging even the most rabid group of fans. For that matter, it would be in keeping with the standard Huskies' opponent-soul-crushing narrative if their 6-3 rookie center, Kiah Stokes, had a big game.

But whatever happens for Williams this time against UConn, she's a can't-miss player we should expect to see get plenty of spotlight for years to come.

"A kid who gets a triple-double in her second conference game? Tip of the iceberg," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said of evaluating Williams' potential. "Her shot-blocking is nothing anyone can take credit for except Elizabeth. It's not something she learned anywhere; it's purely her aggression.

"She's still got lots of work to do, of course, but she's not afraid of that. There's no drama; she's not sensitive to criticism. She just loves to play, and she's very team-driven."

Actually, Williams is just driven, period, although not in any kind of frenzied way. An excellent student with the goal of medical school, Williams has a personality that makes it seem as if at age 18, she already could be the calm in an emergency-room storm.

That's an especially welcome thing on a team with so many teens. Duke's average age this season is 19 -- the youngest Blue Devils squad since 2000-01, when the average was 18.2. (The big freshman star for Duke back then was guard Alana Beard.)

Williams has picked up wisdom beyond her years thanks in part to her USA Basketball experiences, which included playing this summer on the U-19 world championship team along with UConn's Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson. Then she hit the ground running at Duke, both academically and athletically.

"She's so smart; she's picked up our multiple defenses: man-to-man, full-court, half-court; two matchup [zones]; three different presses," McCallie said. "She's learned everything so quickly, whereas another young person might take a whole year to comprehend a defensive situation that Elizabeth gets almost immediately. It's really a lot of fun to coach her."

She's so smart … She's learned everything so quickly, whereas another young person might take a whole year to comprehend a defensive situation that Elizabeth [Williams] gets almost immediately. It's really a lot of fun to coach her.

-- Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie

Williams jokes that the only down part of last semester was her first chemistry test, which "wasn't pretty, but after that things got better." And the class on aging gave her a greater appreciation of a different kind of chemistry: building relationships with people who are not much like you.

"The first day of class, [the instructor] asked us, 'How many of you have talked to someone over the age of 65 who is not a grandparent?'" Williams said. "And, like, two people raised their hands. Generally, in our age group, we don't think to converse with older people. Part of the class was to go to a retirement home and talk with them, and that was cool. We grew a pretty strong bond with them."

Born in England before her family came to the United States, Williams recalls committing in her mind to the idea of a future in medicine when she was in junior high. Her father, Alex, is a doctor, and her mother, Margaret, a nurse.

"But that alone didn't make me want to be a doctor," Williams said of the family ties to medicine. "Talking to them and seeing them with patients, or if they tell me about their day at work, I'm fascinated by it. And the concept that you use your knowledge to save people's lives -- to have an impact on your community -- I just think it's awesome."

The Blue Devils have had a couple of bad breaks, with freshman Amber Henson sidelined with a knee injury and Chloe Welles being out for the second semester because of an undisclosed violation of school policy.

But with Williams and four sophomores -- Chelsea Gray, Haley Peters, Richa Jackson and Tricia Liston -- in the starting lineup, the Blue Devils are big and strong at each position.

"Everybody on this team leads; it's not done by class rank," McCallie said. "Elizabeth has so much power with the team, regardless of her age. For instance, we run a mile and a half [in conditioning], and you say, 'Posts are going to do it in 11 minutes,' and she just says,'Uh-huh.'

"Then she runs it in 10:15. But never tells you that she's going to beforehand. She's not a predictor or a talker. She's a doer."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.