RJ Williams wants to be a cardiologist, and basketball is helping him get there.
As he works toward an undergraduate degree in communication while on scholarship, Williams also is leading the Boise State men’s basketball team in points (15.2), rebounds (6.9) and steals (1.8) this season.
Williams and the Broncos (5-7) play their nonconference finale against Oregon (8-4) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Taco Bell Arena. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network and is the second meeting between the two schools this month. The Ducks won 66-54 on Dec. 15 at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene.
Saturday’s game will provide Williams with a chance at redemption. He scored a season-low two points in the Broncos’ first loss to the Ducks.
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“I’m eager to play, just like every other game,” Williams said. “Most people say it was my worst game or whatever. I really don’t care. It’s just a learning experience. I did some things wrong, and now I get time to correct it.”
Williams has always put an emphasis on learning.
The 6-foot-7 junior guard from Los Angeles was committed to academics long before he discovered a love for basketball — he didn’t play on an organized team until the ninth grade.
“There were times when I was with my cousins and we would just shoot for fun,” Williams said. “We were kids. We didn’t know what we were doing. I shot, but I wasn’t going to the gym every day. I’d pick up a basketball like once a year. I was more of a school guy. I wanted to learn more than anything.”
After reading “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story” as a child, Williams was inspired to pursue a career in medicine.
Like Carson, a former neurosurgeon and presidential candidate, Williams grew up in a tough situation. His mother, Monquenta Young, raised Williams and his seven older sisters on her own.
“That’s a strong woman right there,” Williams said.
Williams’ formal basketball career began in high school when Price High coach Mike Lynch spotted him in the hall and convinced him to try out for the team. He hardly played that first season, but found a spot in the starting lineup his sophomore year.
By the time his junior year rolled around, college coaches had taken notice, and Williams realized that his basketball skills could help him pay for the higher education he so badly wanted, so he could perhaps go to medical school someday.
“There was a time where I remember me and my high school coach were talking. He asked me did I love basketball,” Williams said. “At the time I was like, ‘I like it, but it’s not a necessity.’ Then over the years, I came to love it.”
Williams signed with Cal State Dominguez Hills in April 2015, but his college future was derailed a few weeks later when he broke both ankles during a pickup basketball game at school.
He spent the next year on crutches as he worked to rehabilitate from the devastating injury.
“It was a hard process. It was a lot of long nights,” Williams said. “It was hard to see progress. You’re thinking you’re not getting better. You’re just useless, but my mom, sisters and God got me through it.”
After a redshirt season with the Toros, Williams transferred to East Los Angeles College in the fall of 2016. He averaged 18.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game his first season and was named the South Coast Conference (North Division) Player of the Year.
He signed with UTEP in November of that same year and was to begin playing for the Miners starting with the 2017-18 season.
“I went to UTEP for a day,” Williams said. “I got there, and it’s a great school. They had a great coach, Tim Floyd. They had great assistants, but I just knew it wasn’t for me.”
Williams returned to East Los Angeles for his sophomore season, this time averaging 19.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
He signed with Boise State in April and was on campus in July.
“He’s one of those kids the moment I saw him play, the moment I met him, I just felt like he belonged here,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “I really felt like our situation here at Boise State, our support system, our coaches, we could really help RJ (develop), and I think we’re doing that. He’s becoming better. ... He’s got all these great qualities, and if we can keep developing him, I think we’re going to have something special.”
Despite a 5-7 start to the season, Williams says he doesn’t regret his decision, and his teammates are glad he chose Boise State.
“He’s a really good character to have around. He keeps it lively,” Boise State junior Alex Hobbs said. “He’s a funny guy, jokes all the time. He’s a good guy to have around the locker room. He really keeps it upbeat.”
Williams has a pragmatic approach to any adversity he encounters on the basketball court. He believes it is preparing him for an even bigger challenge ahead.
“I know it’s a lot of work to become a cardiologist, so I get the blueprint right now with basketball. Always being busy, it works hand in hand for me,” Williams said. “It’s tough, I’m not going to lie. But as successful as you want to be on the court, you’ve got to be off the court.”
Notes: As of Friday morning, Boise State said there are 8,700 tickets sold for Saturday’s game against the Ducks. ... Oregon announced Thursday that freshman center Bol Bol, sophomore forward Kenny Wooten and sophomore forward Abu Kigab have been ruled out of Saturday’s game with injuries.