LOS ANGELES — After finishing a press conference, Robert Williams walks back toward Texas A&M's locker room. In terms of seeding, the Aggies are the third-ranked team out of four who have advanced here to the West Regional. And accordingly, their accommodations are a little tight. Williams peers at the pack of reporters and staffers obstructing his path back to his seat and starts shimmying his 6'10", 240-pound frame through them before stopping and crying out, "Everybody get up!"
The shout shocks the room momentarily, but then Williams bursts out laughing. Everyone should know by now that Williams is in no hurry. A year ago, he made the surprising decision to turn down a near-certain selection in the first round of the NBA draft and return for his sophomore season at Texas A&M. And as the Aggies prepare for a Sweet 16 showdown with Michigan, Williams is trying to savor every second—even when he's sardined into an overstuffed locker room.
Williams arrived at A&M as the No. 51 recruit in the country, according to the composite rankings at RSCIhoops.com. He had always hoped to be an NBA player, but the idea of going one-and-done hadn't ever seemed realistic to him. But as NBA scouts descended on College Station to check out fellow big men Tyler Davis and DJ Hogg, they quickly became captivated by Williams. He'd added about 25 pounds of muscle over his first summer in college, and that, combined with a 7'5.5" wingspan and a 40" vertical, had the scouts salivating. By the spring semester, Williams was in the lottery conversation.
"It's always been my dream to play in the NBA," Williams says, "but I didn't expect what happened at all. God really blessed me."
In part due to a lack of quality guard play, the Aggies—who were 320th in the country in turnover percentage and 265th in three-point percentage a season ago, per KenPom.com—finished with a disappointing 16-14 regular season record. After suffering a first-round loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament, Texas A&M coaches were expecting Williams to depart for the draft. But after the media left the locker room, Williams called assistant coach Isaac Chew into the hallway and told him he wanted to return. Chew was thrilled to hear the news, but he advised Williams to talk to his family over spring break before making a final decision.
In the offseason, Williams worked with strength coach Darby Rich to add more muscle to his legs and to improve his flexibility. But Rich's main focus was reducing Williams' risk for major injuries. (Williams says that he took out an insurance policy before returning.)
"He took a great risk in coming back," Rich says. "I want him to improve his NBA draft stock, but I wanted him to be healthy."
Despite the precautions, Williams' year hasn't been entirely smooth. He was suspended for the first two games of the season for an undisclosed violation of team rules, and he suffered some health setbacks as well. At a practice in December, he knocked heads with freshman forward Isiah Jasey, resulting in concussions for both big men. For the better part of a week, Williams was unable to practice—early on, even a few minutes on the stationary bike would leave him lightheaded. He also contracted the flu in January.
"It wasn't always easy," Chew says. "He's a 19-year-old kid, and he's going to make mistakes and have setbacks. But his heart is right, and he'll be right in the end."
Part of the problem for Williams this season has been Texas A&M's abundance of talent in the frontcourt. Williams primarily plays the 4, with Davis at center and Hogg at the 3. But he projects in the NBA as a rim-crashing 5 man.
"He's a center," says Ron Meikle, who coached him in high school and had previously spent more than two decades as an NBA scout. "And I think if he goes to a good team with great guards that throw the ball up the floor, people will really see how fast he is and how good of an athlete he is."
In Texas A&M's two NCAA tournament games, Williams has scored 21 points and snagged 27 rebounds. In one particularly memorable sequence against North Carolina, he blocked a three-point shot, streaked down the court for a windmill slam and then sprinted back to collect a defensive rebound.
Williams, for his part, is trying to make sure moments like that happen more regularly. "I just had a tendency to take plays off some times," he says. "But that's not happening anymore. We rolling."
In the eyes of some draft analysts, his decision to return has been a boon. "When the process really gets underway in April or May," says ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, "he'll be where he was a year ago—if not higher. I think he compares favorably to some of the freshman big men. I think he's ahead of Mo Bamba. And I wouldn't be shocked if he goes in the top seven."
But others believe he didn't capitalize as much as he could have in his return. "He didn't cost himself anything—other than delaying his NBA money—but he didn't catapult himself into the top five or six like he could have," says one NBA front office executive. "He's mostly the same guy he was a year ago. He hasn't plummeted, but he's plateaued."
For now, the only plateau Williams is worried about is with his Aggies in this NCAA tournament. There's almost no doubt he'll enter the NBA draft after this season, but for now, he's thrilled to still be playing for Texas A&M.