NASHVILLE, Tenn.- Josh Williams went up for a shot just like he had thousands of times before. It was December 2015 and Lipscomb was playing host to Princeton in a non-conference battle.
The Bisons were off to a slow start, but Williams had just scored on the previous possession. During his next drive to the basket, his left knee gave out. The 6-foot-5 guard crumpled to the ground and screamed in agony.
“When I went down, I had the worst pain of my life for about 10 seconds,” Williams said. “Instead of rolling an ankle, it felt like my knee had been rolled.”
Tests later confirmed what Williams and head athletic trainer Will Ness had feared: a torn ACL. Williams’ once-promising junior season was over before ASUN Conference play had even started.
“For him to not be able to finish the year and not live up to expectations was pretty devastating,” Lipscomb head coach Casey Alexander said. “The timing of the injury did not help, because our team was struggling at the time.”
To compound the issue, Williams was already playing with a torn labrum. He underwent knee surgery in mid-December 2015 and then had shoulder surgery just two weeks later.
“It was a rough time,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got back to school and watched the first game that everything hit me. I was like ‘man, I can’t do anything to help.’”
Through a lengthy recovery process and sheer determination, Williams has refused to let his injuries define what has been an otherwise stellar career. As of February 15, he has totaled 1,442 career points, good for 21st place on Lipscomb’s all-time leading scoring list and fifth place in the NCAA Division I era.
“The recovery process was a lot of work and it was very painful,” Williams said. “When I was cleared (to play) in the summer, it was one of the most exciting days of my career.”
Williams’ story at Lipscomb began with a coaching change. The Jackson, Mississippi native was originally recruited by Scott Sanderson, who resigned in the spring of 2013. Despite that, Williams knew it was in his best interest to come to Lipscomb, no matter who the new coach would be.
“It was a strange situation, because he actually signed with (interim coach Pete Froedden),” Alexander said. “He committed to Lipscomb without knowing who the new coach would be, so he pretty much had his mind made up.”
It was an easy choice for Williams, especially considering his limited options at the Division I level.
“It was either sign with Lipscomb or go another route like signing with a JUCO school or a lower-division school,” Williams said. “I had taken a visit and gotten close with some of the guys on the team and I was familiar with Nashville because I played AAU basketball here.”
His decision paid dividends almost immediately. Williams burst on the scene by averaging 13 points per game and he was named to the ASUN All-Freshman team. His best performance came against East Tennessee State, when he poured in 34 points, which still stands as his career high.
If Williams’ 2013-14 campaign was not enough to make his name known around the conference, his sophomore season certainly was. Williams produced 16.9 points per game and was named first-team All-ASUN Conference.
“We didn’t know what to expect from Josh,” Alexander said. “We knew he had potential, but his freshman season was a bit of a surprise. He’s always been a natural scorer and he’s made the most of his opportunities.”
The 2015-16 season brought high expectations for Williams. He was unanimously voted to the preseason All-ASUN Conference team and was named on the Lou Henson Award watch list, an honor given to the top mid-major player in the nation.
Williams scored his 1,000th career point against South Carolina on November 27, 2015, just a few weeks before the ACL injury. He appeared in just 13 games and averaged 12.6 points per game.
By keeping the situation in perspective, Williams was able to improve his game. He gained a new perspective from sitting on the bench and then worked relentlessly to get back in shape for his senior season.
“I felt like I had something to prove to myself,” he said. “ACL injuries are weird. Some people say it can take over a year to get everything back (to normal). My biggest thing was to see what I could do to shorten that process.”
The beginning of the season brought some nerves for Williams, but those fears quickly subsided after he stepped onto the court.
“During one of the first games, I took a hard fall,” Williams said. “After that, the butterflies were gone and it was time to go.”
Williams has appeared in all 28 games this season and he is currently second on the team in scoring (13.5 points per game) and first in free throw percentage (85.5 percent).
“When the season began, you could see that the effort was there, but he wasn’t as explosive as he was before the injury,” Alexander said. “As the season has gone on, he’s gotten stronger and has gained more confidence.”
The Bisons are currently on a six-game winning streak and have won 13 of their last 15 contests. Williams believes the team is buying into the message that Alexander and his staff preach.
“This year’s team has really bought in to what our coaches want us to do,” Williams said. “The guys care about each other, and when the off-the-court stuff is going well, it makes the on-the-court stuff even better.”
Williams is set to graduate in May with a degree in business management. He hopes to play professional basketball, if the opportunity presents itself, before transitioning into the sports business world as an agent.
“I’m sure he’ll have the opportunity to play (pro basketball),” Alexander said. “I’d be surprised if he wasn’t playing somewhere next year.”
Williams and Alexander have their sights set on the more immediate future as Lipscomb hopes to continue its winning ways. The Bisons play host to North Florida on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and will face Jacksonville on Saturday at 4:00 p.m for Senior Day, when Williams will be honored.
He credits his parents, Renee and Willie Williams, for supporting him and providing constructive criticism throughout his college career. There have been good times and bad times, but Williams will certainly be remembered for his ability to score points and overcome adversity.
“There’s been ups and downs,” Williams said of his career. “I’ve done a lot of growing up during these four years.”
“Winning is a big priority for us, but playing at (Lipscomb) is about more than that. The coaching staff genuinely cares about us as people.”
Alexander sees Williams as a symbol of the transition that the Lipscomb basketball program has undergone over the last four seasons, and he would love nothing more than to see it all pay off.
“(Josh) deserves a lot of credit for being such an important piece between the old staff and the new staff,” Alexander said. “It’s been a tough road in a lot of ways, but he has never done anything but give Lipscomb his best effort. He’s received some personal awards, but we want him to experience some team awards, too.”