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UNLV’s Donovan Williams emerges as complementary scorer

Donovan Williams slowed his sprint in transition Tuesday night and gathered his steps while teammate Bryce Hamilton dribbled toward the single backpedaling New Mexico defender.

Sure enough, Hamilton lofted the basketball toward the bottom right corner of the backboard — albeit a little too far for Williams to field cleanly.

Or not.

Instead of gathering the pass with two hands and finishing a simple layup, Williams extended his right arm over and behind his head — effortlessly yet violently palming and slamming the ball through the hoop to the delight of the crowd inside Thomas & Mack Center.

“He put it down and I just turned around and screamed,” said UNLV senior center Royce Hamm, a trailer on that possession. “That was all I could do.”

Williams has emerged as one of UNLV’s most exciting — and productive — players during this, his junior season and first with the Rebels after two years at the University of Texas. The 6-foot-6-inch wing is the program’s most explosive leaper. He’s also its second-leading scorer, averaging 13.9 points on 49.7 shooting, including 44.7 percent from 3-point range.

He’s been even better in his last five games, averaging 21.8 points while shooting 61.7 percent from the floor and 57.1 percent from 3-point range while providing versatility on both ends of the court.

“He’s just playing right now with a level of confidence and security that if the ball is moving, it’s going to find him,” UNLV coach Kevin Kruger said. “It’s going to find energy. It’s going to find aggressive players.”

Known as “Stretch” since he was a pee wee wide receiver, Williams has the physical profile of an NBA player. A seven-foot wingspan complements his lean 190-pound frame. The Houston area native was a prolific scorer in high school and a four-star high school prospect in the graduating class of 2019.

But he played sparingly at Texas. Lingering knee issues stymied his development, limiting him to an average of 10.7 minutes during 41 games for the Longhorns and triggering a trip to the transfer portal.

UNLV and Kruger offered Williams an opportunity to play, and it was during the informal spring and summer periods that the coach began to realize the potential of the player he’d be coaching.

“When you’re born 6-7 with a big wingspan, that word ‘potential’ gets thrown around, but when he got here, he’s been in the gym as much as anybody,” Kruger said. “The stretch that he’s been on has probably been a little surprising to us. … He’s not forcing anything and rushing anything.”

Kruger fiddled with Williams’ role at the beginning of the season, knowing he could deploy him as a traditional wing or small-ball big because of his length and defensive versatility. But Williams settled into a role in the starting lineup and has played the last month primarily on the perimeter where he’s more comfortable.

He’s a fluid force in transition and is beginning to find ways to attack in the halfcourt. By say, spacing out to the 3-point line, attacking closeouts with confidence, passing, cutting and relocating, and seeking contact on dribble drives.His emergence gives the Rebels another scoring wing alongside Hamilton, who averages a team-high 18.3 points per game.

“The game is coming to him a little more and more with the reps he’s getting,” Kruger said. “It’s nice to have him out there playing confident because I think it gives the other guys some confidence.”

Williams deferred credit, though, opting to acknowledge reserve center David Muoka and reserve forward Victor Iwuakor. The two combine to average 18.5 minutes per game, but they relieve Williams of some of the taxing punishment that accompanies a role in the frontcourt.

Williams doesn’t want that to go unnoticed, even during his scoring surge.

“Now, going back to the wing, going back to my natural position, it’s just natural,” Williams said. “I can’t even say I go out there and try to (score). I just go out there and play basketball. That’s just what I do.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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