Texas A&M's Robert Williams burst onto the scene last year as a relative unknown in the NBA's eyes and was immediately viewed as a lottery pick.
His statistics were not eye-popping, but at 6'10" with a 7'5" wingspan and elite athleticism and shot-blocking ability, he had the attributes NBA teams covet in big men. He was raw but skilled enough that he got tagged with a high ceiling. He was a clear candidate to be one-and-done.
Then on March 21, Williams surprised many when he announced he would return for his sophomore season.
It's a path, however, that is not as risky as it was once viewed. There are very few injuries that ruin careers or draft stock. (See Harry Giles.) Marcus Smart was a trendsetter of sorts five years ago when he returned for his sophomore season as a projected lottery pick, and Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield and Jakob Poeltl have made similar decisions in recent years. Dunn, Hield and Poeltl all boosted their stock; Smart's probably stayed the same. Michigan State's Miles Bridges made a similar decision this past offseason, returning to a national title contender to try to grow his game.
But no one in that group has had a season that has played out like Williams'.
The A&M sophomore started the year suspended for the first two games, has missed an additional three games due to injury or illness, plays for one of the most disappointing teams in college basketball and has put up modest numbers considering his talent level.
It's the worst-case scenario for the stay-in-school crowd. This is why you strike when the iron is hot.
"He hasn't helped himself by coming back," an NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "Has he hurt himself? That's a great question."
This is the logic most college coaches and NBA personnel believe in: If the feedback from NBA teams is that a prospect is a first-round pick, then it should be a real debate whether to stay or go. Any underclassman prospects who grade out as second-rounders or "not likely to get drafted" are taking a risk by leaving school because only first-round picks are guaranteed contracts.
Williams was clearly in the first camp. He was too talented to slip past the first round.
But similar to the aforementioned group that started with Smart, he made the decision to bet on himself, and there doesn't appear to be any outside pressure that led him down that route.
"We basically wanted him to do what was best for him," A&M coach Billy Kennedy told B/R. "The kid wanted to come back to go to school and be a college student and be part of this team and this program. We were just the benefit of his decision really."
Williams said he wanted to improve his basketball IQ, become a leader and improve his jump shot.
"My brothers and the staff, we keep a tight family around here, and I wanted to be back with them," he said. "I felt like I needed to grow more."
That's a decision with plenty of logic. Unfortunately, the results have not played out as expected.
The Aggies started the season ranked No. 25 and a trendy pick to win the SEC. They won their season opener against West Virginia without Williams and climbed to No. 5 after an 11-1 nonconference run, the one loss coming in Phoenix to Arizona, one of the most talented teams in the country.
Williams started his sophomore campaign strong with a double-double in his first game out of the suspension and followed that with 21 points on 10-of-12 shooting and 10 rebounds in his second game, a win over Penn State. But he was a ghost the rest of the nonconference on the offensive end, averaging 4.3 points.
His numbers have returned to the mean since, but he's still slightly behind his freshman averages.
|Robert Williams by the numbers|
|Texas A&M athletics|
The Aggies, meanwhile, have slipped into the SEC basement. They are tied for last place at 2-6 with arguably the most talented roster in the league outside of Kentucky—and it's an actual argument who has the better talent.
"They have a ton of talent," a second NBA scout said. "They ought to be an elite team in the country, and I don't know anyone would say he's having a great year relative to expectations."
What About His Draft Stock?
This is the question that hangs over Williams' season and his situation. It seems he could become the cautionary tale for bet-on-yourself prospects.
Then you talk to scouts.
"I don't think he's a candidate to be a top-five pick. I think there are other players who are better in this draft, but I'd be very surprised if he fell out of the top 10," the second scout said. "His talent is just so high."
The first scout: "He's still this really athletic guy with really good wingspan who just doesn't always try."
And a third scout: "I don't know that he's necessarily hurt himself. I think the team has hurt itself through suspensions and all that stuff. I think they should be much better than they are."
This is where context matters. The Aggies had talent last season too, and they missed the NCAA tournament. The problem last year was the absence of guard play, and it appeared the team addressed it with the additions of freshman J.J. Caldwell (who had to redshirt last year when he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA); freshman T.J. Starks, a 4-star recruit; and graduate transfer Duane Wilson. But injuries and suspensions have forced that trio to miss a combined 12 games, and their presence hasn't made as much difference as expected.
The Aggies, similar to Kentucky, have a roster that isn't ideal for the current college game. Both Williams and leading scorer Tyler Davis are college centers. The Aggies play through Davis a lot in the post—as they should, considering his ability—but it leaves few post-ups for Williams, and that's part of the reason he disappears.
Against Kansas this past weekend, for instance, Williams was typically matched up with one of KU's perimeter players because the Jayhawks play with a space-and-pace small-ball attack. Yet the Aggies rarely gave him post touches. He put up decent numbers—11 points on 5-of-8 shooting and nine rebounds—but you'd think his matchup would have been one A&M would try to exploit.
It's not easy to play two centers together, especially when you don't surround them with shooters and playmakers on the perimeter. The Aggies have one great shooter on the wing in DJ Hogg, but at 6'9" and slow-footed, he would probably be best served at the college level to play a stretch 4.
Ideally, Williams would be used as a screener in a lot of pick-and-roll action, but the Aggies don't have a perimeter weapon to pair him with or enough shooters to space the floor and make him effective diving to the rim. (Hogg is the only Aggie who has made more than 25 three-pointers.) Williams also has the potential to be a pick-and-pop guy, but he's 0-of-7 from beyond the arc, and his jumper isn't consistent enough yet for a struggling offense to lean on.
"I don't know that he's progressed a lot," the second scout said. "He's made slight improvement on his body, slight improvement in his skill set. He's a freak athlete and he plays way above the rim, and that's more or less what he's going to be."
That is telling in the stats as well. Williams is shooting an impressive 82.6 percent at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com, but he hasn't been an efficient scorer because of his struggles at the free-throw line, where he's just 19-of-40 (47.5 percent).
The Aggies are finally healthy, and there is some hope for that reason, along with what Williams has done lately. He's averaging 15.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks over his last four games.
"We're starting to see him be more aggressive offensively, which we've been wanting him to do throughout the year," Kennedy said. "I think he's getting more comfortable playing. His conditioning is better, and I think he's starting to grow up more. The experience of playing in more games is really helping."
At this point, the only way for Williams to truly change the perception of his sophomore season is to start putting up monster numbers or for the Aggies to resurrect their season and pile up wins. Neither appears likely. But Williams can continue doing what he's doing, and he'll likely get a pass when (and if) he declares following this season.
"He's still a good prospect," the third scout said. "He's still athletic and big and strong, and we were able to see him at the shoe camps this summer where he was still pretty impressive. There's still a lot of things to like about him."
You cannot teach big, strong and athletic. Statistics matter to NBA evaluators, but not as much as measurables. And if you have the measurables, the risk in returning to school is minimal.
That's the lesson to pull from the Robert Williams story.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter @CJMooreHoops.