There was never any grand announcement earlier this season that Destiny Williams was no longer a regular starter. No big team meeting. It just happened.
As fellow senior transfer Brooklyn Pope emerged as a powerful option at forward earlier this season, Williams, one of Baylor’s key starters during last year’s national title push, was moved to the bench to make room for Pope.
Williams’ role hadn’t changed much. She was still using her 6-1 frame to gobble up valuable offensive rebounds, still exploiting space left by Brittney Griner’s triple-teams, still providing a stable presence in the locker room.
But now it was coming from the bench. Her name wasn’t being called before games anymore, boomed over the Ferrell Center loudspeakers as she trotted through a rolling bath of fog onto the floor as one of the starting five. She no longer carried the knowledge that she started on a championship team she helped define.
These facts wears on some players. It never wore on Williams.
“I’ve experienced the starting situation, and it’s been wonderful,” Williams said. “But the thing is, all I wanted to do is play. And not just play, but play when it really matters in critical situations to help the team. I feel like coach (Kim) Mulkey has given me opportunities for that. She’s splitting the minutes. I don’t think the name, who starts, really matters to me. As long as I get a chance to play and contribute, I’m good.”
Williams is averaging 8.5 points and 6.7 rebounds and, despite coming off the bench for 23 of Baylor’s 33 games this season, her 20.3 minutes per game compare favorably to Pope’s 18.6. Indeed, Williams contributed pivotal minutes in each of Baylor’s big wins, including against top five teams UConn and Notre Dame.
It’s taken some time for Williams to adjust to coming off the bench, but she’s doing it now as well as anyone in the country.
“I’ll be a little stiff coming in,” Williams said. “But I adjusted to it. I don’t miss a beat. I shoot the ball and get offensive rebounds. That’s what I do, regardless if I start or not. At the beginning I didn’t understand why I didn’t start, and to this day I don’t, but Brooklyn’s having a good season as well.”
Recently, Williams was named the Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year by both the conference and the Tribune-Herald. Days later, she hit a season high with 20 points and seven rebounds in a blowout win over Kansas State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.
For Mulkey, it was simply a matter of balancing minutes among a crop of forwards deeper than the ocean floor.
“You can’t have but five out there,” Mulkey said. “It wasn’t anything, like, ‘She’s better than you’ or ‘She’s going to get more minutes’ or ‘She’s producing.’ It wasn’t that, it was just that we have to get Brooklyn in the mix more now because she’s having a good year.”
After a standout high school career in Benton Harbor, Mich., Williams narrowed her official visits to Illinois, Maryland, Ohio State, Louisville and Georgia, and her final choice was split between Maryland and Illinois.
Off to Illinois
Illinois won. It was closer to home, and Williams was more interested in forging history with a less-established program. As Illinois’ first McDonald’s All-American, she was the most heralded recruit in program history.
But troubling signs began cropping up almost as soon as she started. Assistant coach Tamika Lewis, the coach to whom Williams was closest, was dismissed from the team on the eve of Williams’ first semester. And Williams played in Thailand with the U.S. under-20 team the previous summer, robbing her of bonding time before stepping into the grinder that fall.
“Some of the upperclassemn didn’t really like me because I was coming in with all this recognition that I was supposed to be this and that type player,” Williams said.
The levee finally burst after a heartbreaking season-opening loss to Temple on Nov. 13, 2009 in which Williams, in her Illinois debut, played seven minutes and scored a single point. Tensions were already high because Illinois had blown a 16-point lead with less than six minutes to go and eventually lost in overtime.
After the game, Williams was whistling innocuously in the locker room when senior Lacey Simpson took exception and picked a fight.
“They tried to kick me out of the locker room,” Williams said. “They took me to the coach’s room, they brought me back in and we almost got into it again. After that I said ‘I’m out of here. I can’t take this. This is not worth it.’ ”
Williams was denied a release to talk to the schools of her choice twice by Illinois coach Jillette Law, but she finally broke through. Baylor, already stocked with its best-ever freshman class and the transfer of Pope the previous fall, was Williams’ choice.
Stuck in depth chart
Baylor’s roster was stocked at the four spot, Williams’ position, but that was hardly her initial concern. Despite playing only seven minutes for Illinois, the NCAA didn’t grant Williams an extra year of eligibility. In any case, she had to sit out the next year as far away from home as she’d ever lived.
“My first thoughts were, I’m so far away from home that I have to reach out to some of these players,” Williams said. “This is the only family I have for the next three-and-a-half years. My thing was to get back into the flow and let whatever happened at Illinois be erased. Basketball was my stress reliever.”
Williams spent her year off the court as Baylor’s most respected practice player. She went against Griner and Pope in practice every day, and she did her best to adjust off the court as well.
“When she first got here she wanted to go by the water cooler and stand by herself and the rest of the team is over here,” Mulkey said, before making a gathering motion. “No, you get over here.”
By the time she hit the floor for the first time, Williams was more than comfortable. She started 20 games her sophomore year and 33 last season, when she averaged 10.1 points in Baylor’s national title-winning season.
And, despite adjusting to a new role, she hasn’t missed a beat during her last season in Waco.
“It taught so many life lessons. I’ve learned so many things, especially being so far away from home,” Williams said. “I’ve been through thick and thin. If I had to go back in time and make some different decisions, I wouldn’t. I’d choose the exact situations and the exact moments, because I’ve had some awesome times here in Texas and a lot of experiences on and off the court.”