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D.J. Williams stars, Simeon sparkles in trip to Dubai

06/29/2014, 8:00am CDT
By Joe Henricksen | @joehoopsreport

Illinois recruit and state powerhouse grow together as player and team in the most unusual of spots -- the United Arab Emirates.

Simeon coach Robert Smith is anxious and hopeful everyone in the United States will get to see the D.J. Williams he just watched overseas.

“It’s the best I’ve ever seen him play,” says Smith of his star senior after his team’s recently completed 5-1 trip to Dubai. “He showcased the full package –– on and off the court, communicating with teammates, shots falling, aggressive in getting to the basket, attacking the offensive glass.”

Williams came to Simeon in layers of hype as an incoming freshman. That’s what happens at a city, state and national powerhouse that just recently produced Derrick Rose, where Jabari Parker was roaming as a junior, and the Wolverines were in the midst of an eye-opening state championship run.

The phrase “next great one out of Simeon" –– never easy or fair to live up to –– generated immediate expectations for Williams. However, every young prospect is a different player and develops at a distinctive pace.

Williams, a multi-faceted 6-7 wing, is now showing what that hype was about. In Dubai he averaged over 20 points and seven rebounds a game, while playing off the ball and sharing some time at point guard. He scored 32 points in the championship game with 7 rebounds and 4 assists in a 83-78 win over Huntington Prep out of West Virginia.

“Overall he was just phenomenal,” says Smith of Williams, a top 50 prospect in the country. “He was a different player. He wasn’t laid back or inconsistent. If he can continue to play that way, with that type of mindset, Illinois has a great player coming their way and we’re going to have a better chance of winning a state championship.”

Fresh off a solid spring playing with Meanstreets on the AAU circuit, Williams says he’s played with more aggression and confidence ever since.

“I played with more confidence than usual,” says Williams of his performance in Dubai. “There isn’t any one reason why other than I’ve been working on my game, I’m more confident because of it, and I wanted to start the summer off right. Six months ago I wasn’t consistently aggressive. It was a vacation but also business for me in that I wanted to focus on the basketball part of it, be consistently aggressive and be a better leader.”

Simeon’s team experience in Dubai while participating in the MPAC Elite International Tournament from June 15-23 is tough to put into words, according to Smith. 

“I just know our kids smiled the entire time they were there,” says Smith. “There were no worries for them. They were out and about, enjoying themselves. They didn’t worry about things they worry about in Chicago with the gun violence and dangers there are at home. It was a great, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

The basketball experience –– the chance to play six games against quality competition and bond as a team –– will hopefully pay dividends for Smith’s Wolverines this winter, when Smith’s program embarks on what it hopes is an unprecedented eighth state championship. 

In Dubai, where Simeon played without high-major recruit Ed Morrow who stayed home for the NBA Top 100 Camp, Smith not only watched Williams take ownership of who he is as a player, but saw the continued maturation of senior Isaiah Moss and bigger roles given to juniors Ben Coupet and Josh Thomas. It was also a chance for promising incoming freshman Kezo Brown to get acclimated.

“There is no doubt the trip helped us grow together, develop a much better team chemistry,” says Williams.

Simeon experienced a whole lot more than just basketball and some together time. They toured Dubai, got up close and personal with camels and saw the vast desert. They were engulfed in the culture and involved in a few community service projects.

“Our kids really enjoyed the time we spent at a disability center,” says Smith. “They played and worked with some kids with disabilities, did some drills with them, had a little scrimmage. This entire trip was an eye-opener in many ways.”

Isaiah Moss, a 6-5 senior who continues to blossom this spring and summer on the court, says the culture and physical geography of a different part of the world is what opened his eyes.

“It was great because that’s the first time I’ve ever traveled outside the country,” says Moss, who has offers from DePaul, Wyoming, UIC, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Just seeing that desert, how big and open it was. It’s just something you’ve never seen before. And seeing the overall culture over there was a great experience.”

Williams also made sure to appreciate all that was new to him, knowing it might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

“I know that I may never have another opportunity or a chance to experience something like this again, so I did try to take it all in,” says Williams. 

The culture, landscape and basketball stood out to Williams, but so too did the weather and automobiles.

“It has hot –– real hot and every day,” says Williams of the average June temperatures in Dubai of 105 degrees. “It was 100 degrees or more during the day and 100 degrees when you went outside at night. We also saw a ton of fancy, expensive cars we’ve never seen. But it was beautiful, totally different from here and something I will always remember.”

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