Homeward bound

Jeenathan Williams grows into an expanded role

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Jeenathan Williams had 19 offers from Division-I programs after high school. He had the chance to go to Syracuse. He could’ve gone to Virginia. 

But when selecting a college, basketball wasn’t even Williams’ main concern.

He wanted to come home.

Williams, a Rochester native and a four-star recruit at that point, spent his senior year of high school at Prolific Prep in Napa Valley, CA. He had all the tools to be a successful player; he just needed a school he would feel comfortable in. He found that at UB.

“I just wanted to come back home and play for my father and my mother,” Williams said. “They never got to come to any of my games.”

In September 2017, Williams became the highest-rated recruit in UB history — a true four-star, ranking No. 130 in the nation and No. 25 at his position.

Since stepping onto North Campus in Fall 2018, Williams has steadily seen his role increase. In his freshman season, Williams played in all 36 games, but never started. This year, he has been counted on to provide energy and intensity for Jim Whitesell’s squad.

“I think he has had a really big year,” Whitesell said. “He’s gone from a guy who was our eighth or ninth man to a starter playing heavy minutes. I think he has a great ceiling to get better. He loves the game.”


Jeenathan Williams finishing two points with a dunk against Central Michigan


Williams is a slasher, so he looks to get most of his points in or around the paint. At 6’5”, 200 lb., he compliments his lean, lengthy frame with a blue-collar mentality — the same mentality Whitesell and his predecessor, Nate Oats, have spoken so much about.

Williams works hard for his keep. He does a lot of hustling for his points. In the NBA, players like Stephen Curry are talented shooting the ball, but don’t have to get gritty and put their bodies on the line to score. Williams has to.

Last season, the Bulls counted on Williams to provide meaningful minutes coming off the bench. Williams learned from senior leaders CJ Massinburg, Jeremy Harris and Nick Perkins, and finished the season averaging 3.2 points per-game.

Williams has parlayed that experience into a full-time role with the Bulls this season. He is averaging 25.2 minutes per-game as a starter and has provided the Bulls with a crucial spark, taking on tough defensive assignments and shooting an efficient mark from the field.

His 11.8 points per-game ranks second on the team.

Williams and fellow sophomore Ronaldo Segu have both been counted on to take the next step this season.

“I need them to make a jump collectively,” Whitesell said. “It’s not about shooting more baskets. It’s actually about all the other stuff.”

Williams and Segu have similar recruiting backgrounds. Both were highly sought-after in high school. Both turned down numerous scholarship offers to come to UB. And both have used these similarities as the building blocks to a close friendship.

“My brother,” Williams said, when asked about Segu. “You know I love him, and you know I got his back and he has my back and we do everything together.”


Jeenathan Williams smiling as UB closes out a victory against Central Michigan


Before Williams and Segu joined forces in Buffalo, Williams was a standout basketball player at University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men in Rochester.

UPrep was successful in Williams’ final season as a Griffin, leading his squad to the Section V Class AA Tournament. At the time, ESPN ranked Williams the 29th best small forward in the nation. He averaged 22 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists in 2017.

After his junior season, Williams transferred to Prolific Prep. He was seeking a more advanced basketball and academic experience and found it on the West Coast.

“It was a safer environment,” Williams said. “It helped me and my family get a better experience so I could stay out of trouble and just focus on basketball and get better.”

Williams received a scholarship offer from Rutgers University the summer before his junior year. Offers from Marquette, Niagara, Rhode Island and Providence followed shortly after. By the time he had reached his senior year, he had secured offers from elite programs like NC State and Syracuse.

Williams was “up in the air” until September 2017, when he committed to play for Oats and the Bulls. He cites being close to home as the reason why he chose to come to Buffalo.

And when Whitesell took over, the coaching change didn’t hamper his development, with Williams easing into a “bigger role” under Whitesell. Even though he is surrounded by a different cast of players and coaches, Williams says the pressure hasn’t gotten to him in his second season with the Bulls.

And Whitesell is confident that Williams will continue to grow into a more expansive role.

“[He has to] continue to grow in all the things that maybe the fans don’t notice,” Whitesell said. “Improving his rebounding, his individual defense, his playmaking, his assist-to-turnover ratio and his shot selection — these are things we’re on them all the time about.”

With the season winding down, Whitesell is hopeful that Williams will be productive not only down the stretch, but for years to come.

“He’s on his way,” Whitesell said.

The sports desk can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com.