Brenton Williams had a hint that it was coming.
Content to stay in the background as a lethal but inconsistent scorer, Williams had had big games at South Carolina but usually ceded to another player when it came time for the game-winning play or talking about it afterward.
Williams was a player, not a speaker. If somebody wanted to take his turn in front of the microphone for a snazzy quote or two, that was fine. He would be happier practicing his jumper.
But the Gamecocks lost a substantial part of their upperclassman presence when three rising seniors transferred after last season, leaving two seniors. One of those was Bruce Ellington, who would be playing football again.
While a ready-made huddle presence was available in junior transfer Ty Johnson, he was also out until December.
USC needed a leader, one who would be in the summer workouts, in every preseason practice, in every game. Williams, who ended the year as the Gamecocks’ leading returning scorer and nearly single-handedly led them to their final win of the season with a 38-point performance, was it.
Whether he liked it or not.
“We all think, me included, that because he’s our lone senior, he’s supposed to be our team leader,” coach Frank Martin said at SEC Media Days on Thursday. “I pressure him into trying to do that sometimes, but he’s got to be comfortable in his own skin.”
The playing ability was one thing — Williams added 20 pounds of muscle over the summer, improving his jumping, shooting, running and stamina, and has the capability of having a red-hot night much more often than once per month. USC, breaking in eight newcomers, is going to need somebody to consistently score and Williams can be that guy.
What Williams needed to do was become loud. He was loud in his performance at times last year, but hardly raised his voice over a peep in the locker room. Now Martin was asking him to do things, the freshmen were asking him how to do things.
“I’ve usually been on teams where there has always been a guy ahead of me that led,” Williams said. “It’s definitely new to me, but I’m up for the experience. I’m learning as days go by, and helping with the younger guys.”
That meant encouraging, cajoling and getting mad if he had to. “I haven’t yelled quite yet, but I’m pretty sure it might come,” he offered with a wry grin.
That also meant talking to the freshmen when Martin would blister them with a verbal barrage. Happens to everybody, as Williams knew, and can be overwhelming.
“That’s one of the first things I tried to help them out with, because I knew that was one of the first things going to bother younger players,” Williams said. “I think they’re doing a great job, so far.”
Williams was on a crash course of learning Martin’s ways, as was everyone else last year. The players found out who their new coach was when everyone else did, and the season was a constant adjustment process.
Williams’ minutes began to dwindle, until “a light switch came on,” as he and Martin have said many times. That led to the 38-point game on Senior Night, the highest point total a USC player has scored in an SEC regular-season game.
“Last year was kind of a rollercoaster of emotions for him,” Martin said. “He started off the year playing, then he went through a stretch of the year where I couldn’t put him in the game because he wouldn’t defend. Then at the end of the year, he scores 38. He’s gotten better. As a coach, that’s all you can ask, that kids grow within your program.”
Playing in the S.C. Pro-Am over the summer gave Williams more experience to grow as a player, and he harnessed the leadership reigns, slowly at first but now fully invested. He’s going to be looked at to supply a lot, from points to a simple reassuring pat on the back.
He’s accepted all of it.
“It was, at the beginning,” Williams said. “As practices are still going on, it’s starting to become a little more easier. Especially when the guys come at me with questions, I got to help them out with answers. That’s making it definitely more comfortable.”