Practice ends inside IMG Academy’s basketball facility and Emmitt Williams won’t stop smiling as he walks to the sideline with a basketball in hand. He’s only been playing the sport for about five years and already he’s one of the most important players on one of the best high school teams in the nation, with college coaches from around the country dropping by campus to let him know how much they want him.
It’s still sort of strange to Williams that he’s in this position. He never pictured himself as having a chance to play college basketball when he was a skinny preteen in Fort Myers who had to be dragged on to the basketball court. To everyone who works with him, his rise is about his attitude. He can be carefree one moment and serious the next. He plays with confidence and purpose, but he never takes himself too seriously.
“I’ll let it fly right now,” he asks when the progress of his jump shot is questioned. The ball bricks off the front rim and bounces back to the sideline, where it skips up into the air and falls into a basket of balls a few feet away. “I made it in there!” he exclaims.
A few minutes later, he’s stoic. He pulls the left arm hole of his jersey off his shoulder to reveal a name and date he can never forget when he’s on the court: Stef’an Strawder. July 25-2016. Somehow it’s almost been a year since the best friend he refers to as a brother was shot and killed at a Fort Myers nightclub.
It’s because of Strawder that Williams is here at IMG. It’s because of Strawder that he can now be regarded as one of the best juniors in the nation. It’s because of Strawder, at least partially, that the Ascenders are among the favorites to win Dick’s Nationals this weekend and stake a claim as the best team in the country.
“It would mean so much for me,” Williams said. “It would mean a lot definitely for me and my brother.”
‘I’m Thinking About Going To This Party’
At 7:38 p.m. on July 24, Strawder opened his Facebook page to ask his friends about their plans for the evening.
“I’m Thinking About Going To This Party Who All Going?” he wrote. Club Blu Bar and Grill, a nightclub in Fort Myers, was hosting a teen night and Strawder decided to attend.
Three time zones and more than 2,000 miles away, Williams used his Facebook page to watch the party through live streams from his hotel in Las Vegas, where he was playing with Each 1 Teach 1 in the Fab 48, one of the biggest Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournaments in the country.
Shortly before 12:30 a.m. on July 25, gunshots sounded outside Club Blu. Bullets flew into a crowd, which included Strawder. Police rushed to the scene and arrived at 12:43 a.m. Strawder was rushed to Lee Memorial Hospital with a bullet wound in his right shoulder. A few hours later, he was pronounced dead. He was 18.
“I didn’t sleep for like two days,” Williams said.
Strawder was a promising player in his own right in Lehigh Acres. A few months earlier, he was one of The News-Press’ finalists for boys basketball player of the year. Lehigh didn’t win fewer than 19 games in any of his three seasons with the Lightning.
I didn’t sleep for like two days.
Emmitt Williams, IMG Academy forward
He was an electrifying guard — only 5 feet, 8 inches, but blazing quick and slippery on his way to the rim. As a junior, he led Lehigh with 15.6 points, 5.5 assists and 2.8 steals per game. Florida Gulf Coast was interested in recruiting him.
“He was definitely going to play D-I,” Williams said. “The only thing about him was he was small, but that didn’t stop him. He’d pull up from halfcourt. He could dime you. The one thing about my brother, he’ll make sure everyone else scores around him before he scores.”
Until Williams was in seventh grade, he was a football player. He admits he was a late bloomer in basketball — always one of the biggest kids in his grade, just never interested in the sport. Strawder eventually convinced him to start playing.
It started with Williams just catching lobs from his more experienced teammate and laying them in. Williams couldn’t quite dunk as a middle-schooler, so the feeds from Strawder’s drives and dishes usually ended with Williams tapping his shots in off the glass. When it was Williams’ responsibility to create a bucket himself, he was taller than everyone else and could bully his way to the rim.
68-17Lehigh’s record during Stef’an Strawder’s three seasons.
There was no skill or finesse to Williams’ game, standing in stark contrast with the teammate he considered a brother. Williams was basically a foot taller than Strawder and everything Strawder could do for his team with his savvy, Williams could do through sheer effort.
“His greatest attribute is how hard he plays,” said Steve Reece, Williams’ coach with Each 1 Teach 1. “He may be the hardest playing kid in high school basketball.”
Reece started coaching Williams during the forward’s freshman year and says it was always his greatest skill, although his motor runs even higher now.
The morning after Strawder’s death, Williams went down to the hotel lobby to meet his teammate in tears. He told Reece the news then retreated back to his hotel room for the next part of the day, waiting to get on the first flight home.
He may be the hardest playing kid in high school basketball.
Steve Reece, Each 1 Teach 1 head coach
He spent the next two months somewhat off the grid, staying away from the Ascenders and the AAU circuit. When he finally returned to the floor, he had Strawder’s name tattooed on his left shoulder and an extra burden to carry on the court.
“I think he’s taking everything more serious,” Reece said. “He’s not taking anything for granted.
‘Well known by all’
Before Williams was a nationally known high-schooler, he was something of a local sensation in Lee County. In a town with a relatively tiny AAU scene, Williams spent his summers in local gyms for United States Specialty Sports Association tournaments.
It was impossible to miss him. The high-flying 13-year-old, self-described as “a little stick,” had his future high school coach salivating and his future opponents awestruck with his ability to extend possessions with two or three offensive rebounds on a single trip and his at-the-rim finishing uncommon for a player his age.
“He was pretty well known by all and would certainly draw a crowd, for sure,” said Dawn McNew, who coached Williams during his freshman season with the Lightning. “You often forgot just how young he was.”
In Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres, players like Williams are rare. Fort Myers has only produced two NBA players. Lehigh Acres has never had one.
McNew could tell right away that Williams was special and when he finally suited up for the Lightning during the 2014-15 season, she was even more certain he would become one of the city’s most coveted prospects. She calls him “a sponge” and it was the sort of attitude he needed to turn his raw ability into a cohesive skill set.
He jelled masterfully with Strawder. They were childhood friends and their bond carried over on to the court. In middle school, Strawder would feed Williams for finishes around the basket in transition. By high school, that connection evolved into highlight-reel alley-oops.
15.3Points per game for Emmitt Williams as a freshman at Lehigh, second most on the team.
11.2Rebounds per game during Williams’ freshman season, most on the team. He was the only player to average a double-double.
An off-the-backboard lob against Naples Palmetto Ridge. An inbound alley-oop against Fort Myers Dunbar. Cross-court passes for dunks in transition against basically everyone they played. Their skills couldn’t have been more different, yet they were pulled together by their work ethic. They were nearly always together at one of the boys’ two homes and if they weren’t, they were probably in the gym.
Vince Walden, who is now in his second season as IMG’s head coach, was scouting Florida at the time as an assistant coach at Liberty, so he knew about the flashy duo terrorizing opponents along the Gulf Coast. Williams was on the verge of blowing up.
“You always have to think about the up-and-coming guys,” Walden said. “You knew that he was going to have accelerated growth.”
‘It’s an opportunity to do something big’
By the summer after his freshman year, Williams had surpassed Strawder and basically anyone else who has come through Lehigh Acres as a basketball prospect. Williams was 6- 6 at the time and averaged a double-double to help the Lightning reach the Class 6A championship. He spent the following summer playing with Each 1 Teach 1 when he eventually got connected with Ascender coaches. Williams didn’t know much about the school, just that Jonathan Isaac, a Naples native, was going there with the plan of becoming a lottery pick and he could do the same.
Williams agonized over his decision. It would be hard to leave his family, the only town he’d ever known and, perhaps most of all, Strawder.
A lot of people thought they knew what was best for Williams. A lot of voices filled his ears. Strawder was one he knew he could trust.
“He was the one who motivated me to come,” Williams said. “He was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to understand. You’ve got to think about the next level, man. It’s an opportunity to do something big.’ ”
22Emmitt Williams’ ranking in the Class of 2018 by 247sports.com’s composite rankings.
Dick’s Nationals, which begin Thursday, are the biggest stage there is for high school, aside from maybe the various All-American games and Williams may well be in those a year from now, too. The Class of 2018 composite rankings, compiled by 247sports.com, peg Williams as the No. 22 player in his grade and No. 2 in Florida behind only teammate Silvio de Sousa.
But he’s still just a kid from Fort Myers. He spent the weekend before IMG’s New York trip back home for prom and the most overtly emotional he’s been for the Ascenders this season was when they played inside Suncoast Credit Union Arena for the City of Palms Classic.
He floated through the air in a bright yellow shirt with a printed photo of Strawder across the front and a No. 2 — the number Williams wore first at Lehigh and Strawder then claimed when his friend left — on the back as he won the dunk contest and then he returned to Bradenton with regret when IMG fell to Montverde Academy in the semifinals. Williams couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“Maybe,” Walden told him, “we’ll win something bigger for him.”
All games at Christ the King High School in New York
No. 3 Montverde Academy vs. No. 6 Shadow Mountain (Phoenix), noon
No. 4 Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) vs. No. 5 Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), 2 p.m.
No. 2 IMG Academy vs. No. 7 Greensboro Day (Greensboro, N.C.), 4 p.m.
No. 1 La Lumiere (La Porte, Ind.) vs. No. 8 Wasatch (Heber City, Utah), 6 p.m.
Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 3, 3 p.m.
Winner Game 2 vs. Winner Game 4, 5 p.m.