Grant Williams: Background

Here’s the story:

Grant Dean Williams was born in Houston, Texas in 1998, to Gilbert Williams and Teresa Johnson. Houston, the fourth-most populous city in the country, has also been the hometown to basketball players such as Rashard Lewis, Jimmy Butler and the WNBA’s Brittney Griner. Grant’s mother, Teresa, works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which has the famous Johnson Space Center in Houston—“Houston, we have a problem.”

Williams did not have a problem with academics growing up, spurred on by his mother to become an avid reader and high-level student. When Williams was first being recruited the schools going after him the hardest were Ivy League institutions. Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes sold Grant on Tennessee’s strong academic standing to convince him to give the Volunteers and the SEC a shot.

The other major factor in Williams’ decision was the campus’ proximity to Charlotte, North Carolina, where his family lived and where he spent much of his childhood. His father, Gil, worked security for a number of pop artists including Michael Jackson and Prince. If that was proximity to music then his grandfather was immersion in it. “Pop Pop” lived down the road from the Williams family and played a number of instruments that he taught to his grandkids. Grant and his four brothers would spend hours at Pop Pop’s house listening to him play improvisational jazz.

Williams took up that love of music, learning to play as many as ten different instruments, although he only claims proficiency in four: piano, drums, clarinet, and violin. Even with the business of school and basketball he tries to get in a half hour of practice every day. His senior year of high school Williams decided to take part in a musical his school’s theater program was putting on. He dressed up in a sailor outfit for one of the lead roles of the Cole Porter musical “Anything Goes” where he sang and tap-danced on stage.

Often referred to as a “Renaissance Man” Williams has a number of other interests as well. All five of the Williams brothers play chess, and at one point Grant was nationally ranked. He is quick to tell anyone how it helps him at basketball. Chess is all about “knowing your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and exploiting them.” He is also a major fan of the Harry Potter books, having waited in line for the release of multiple installments of the seven-book series by J.K. Rowling. On road trips he boards the team plane with a copy of the popular board game Settlers of Catan tucked under his arm; there is a mandatory game in his hotel room the night before every road game.

Williams played high school basketball at Providence Day School, where he was not recruited as a top prospect. Upon reaching Tennessee he has built himself into one of the nation’s best players, winning SEC Player of the Year last season and a frontrunner to do so again this year as a junior. That has led to Williams making a change in his academic major.

Williams began his time at Tennessee as a mechanical engineering major, but soon changed that. He realized that if he ended up leaving college early it would be difficult to come back down the road and pick that major back up. He changed instead to an economics major, with a focus on international business and a minor in math. Later on in his college career he added another minor, Spanish, and is writing entire papers all in Spanish. The summer before his junior season he was able to take a trip to Spain where he practiced by conversing with the natives. He is on the verge of being bilingual now. Down the road he wants to be trilingual: he plans to learn either French or Chinese next.

As a junior Williams leads a roster of sub-100 recruits that dominated the SEC two seasons in a row, finishing first in 2018 and second in 2019. In January of 2019 he set the SEC record with a 23-23 performance from the free-throw line, the first NCAA player to do so since 1959.

While there is speculation he may return for his senior season, Williams is increasingly looking like a potential first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. If so he will become the first Volunteer to go in the first round since Tobias Harris in 2011; if he goes in the top-10 he will become the first Tennessee player to do so since Dale Ellis in 1983, and join Ellis, Bernard King and Tom Boerwinkle as the only top-10 picks in school history. Even if he goes later in the draft it will be an unexpectedly high outcome for the chess-playing musician who almost went to an Ivy League school.