Some might describe the sporting hierarchy in Jamaica as one that starts with soccer and track, followed by everything else. Sporting heroes there are headlined by Usain Bolt, with the rest likely up for debate.
Basketball does not nearly boast the same storied history in the Caribbean nation of nearly 3 million people. Still, the global game knows no borders, giving many younger generations of Jamaicans yet another sport to dream about.
Warren Williams may not be Usain Bolt, but he’s positioning himself as a leading ambassador for his country when it comes to hoops. The 6-foot-9 forward is a household name at Manhattan College, fresh off his third season with the school. And it wasn’t too long ago he was in Jamaica, with basketball dreams in the making.
“Some of my best memories back home are just living with my best friend Ziggy,” Williams said. “The only difference in the states on a basketball level is the pace of the game is much faster. On a life level, the people in Jamaica are more relaxed.”
His decision to leave Jamaica behind for basketball was Williams’ first step in catching the attention of scouts. That second step was ultimately a leap of faith, landing at the right school that would only challenge him to get better.
The reaction to such an experiment caused two forces to collide — both metaphorically, and literally — with Williams enrolling at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey, for his high school years. With Williams on board, it was business as usual for the prep school powerhouse, winning two state championships and a pair of national finishes.
“Benedict’s really prepared me,” Williams said. “The motto is, ‘Whatever hurts my brother, hurts me.’ That school taught me how to be responsible, how to care for other people, how to look out for your brother — and it prepared me for college, both on a basketball and academic level.”
The call from Steve Masiello turned out to be a difference-maker when it came to Williams’ priorities. The coach who led the Manhattan Jaspers to back-to-back Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships convinced Williams to sit out his freshman year, buying him more time for his all-around development.
Instead of games, Williams learned the team’s system at his own pace. Dealing with the angst of that situation was a challenge in the short-term, Williams said. But looking back, he’s happy about the decision.
“That year really gave me a lot of insight, and I was able to pick up on a lot of different stuff, like the way players played and how coaches coached,” Williams said. “I got to see (Masiello) first-hand before jumping into the fire.”
His debut season in 2018 was worth the wait. Williams averaged 9.2 points in 19 minutes each game for a Jaspers team that ultimately finished seventh in the conference standings. With injury forcing starting center Pauly Paulicap in and out of the lineup, Williams would keep Manhattan’s season alive with a career-high 25 points against Canisius in the MAAC quarterfinals that year, only to watch his team fall in overtime 69-65.
Masiello was impressed with Williams’ adept touch and footwork in the paint. Still, the coach felt there was still more room to grow.
“I think he’s become a terrific rebounder,” Masiello said. “I think that was a major thing for him to develop. He’s a great offensive rebounder, and his shot-blocking has improved tremendously. So has his offensive skill set.”
Injuries didn’t help Williams much in his sophomore campaign. Still, he and Paulicap created a lethal combination in the frontcourt.
“I’ve learned a lot from Pauly, and he’s my really good friend,” Williams said of his former teammate, who now plays at West Virginia University. “Basketball is a game of highs and lows, and that one season in the middle was probably not my best season. But I learned a lot mentally, and I knew what I needed to do.”
Williams was handed the offensive keys his junior year, forever known for the COVID-19 backdrop it came with. The Jaspers had seen better days, but Williams averaged 11.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in just under 27 minutes of playing time each game. Despite those hefty minutes, Williams’ best stretches came during the season’s later stages when a schedule typically becomes grueling for teams.
The season, however, ended with Fairfield eliminating the Jaspers in the first round of the MAAC tournament.
“I thought it was a tough year because we had to quarantine for two weeks,” Williams said. “I think we’re better than we really showed. I think if we really push through, we’ll have something great in the future.”
But this past off-season was different from most. He traded the Manhattan Kelly green and white threads for the Jamaican national team colors for the chance to compete in qualifying games for the 2023 FIBA World Cup in El Salvador. Playing in four games, Williams felt right at home competing for the country that helped raise him.
“I never thought something like this could happen,” Williams told the Jamaica Basketball Project. “Just putting on the Jamaican jersey that represents where I am from is such an amazing feeling.”
Don’t fret, however. Williams has not forgotten about Manhattan College. The days of him throwing down dunks and blocking shots in front of a packed Draddy Gymnasium is expected to exist on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic.
Williams’ remaining challenge, however, will be finally bringing home that first MAAC championship since 2015.
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