"Every program needs a Danielle Williams"
After a Wayne State basket early in the first quarter of the Michigan women’s basketball team’s Nov. 3 exhibition, guard Siera Thompson rushed the ball up the court before the Warriors could get set and found guard Danielle Williams running toward the basket for an easy layup.
It would be fair to say that Thompson and Williams — the two-year captains and lone seniors on a young, energetic Michigan team — are no strangers to such a routine play. But while Thompson was just taking care of business as an established star in the program, Williams was already having an above average performance.
Ever since Williams arrived at Michigan in 2013 to join the women’s basketball team, her opportunities to display her skills have been few and far between.
Williams has averaged just 1.4 points and 11.4 minutes per game in her 84 collegiate games, numbers that aren’t going to catch anyone’s eye. It seems remarkable that someone who plays just a quarter of the game winds up as a team captain for not one, but two seasons.
Yet despite Williams’ stat line, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico had nothing but gratitude for what she has done for the team, mincing no words when talking about the point guard at the team's media day in early October.
“Every program needs a Danielle Williams,” Barnes Arico said with a smile. “If my child could ever be like Danielle Williams, I would’ve hit a home run.”
With a Michigan roster that features the likes of Thompson and All-American guard Katelynn Flaherty, it requires a special character to receive the kind of praise that Williams got from her coach. But Williams’ leadership and character have been in the making since she first picked up a basketball, and have finally been realized in her final season at Michigan.
These traits would not have come about without the competition that has surrounded Williams all her life. That’s no surprise given she has two older siblings who played sports in college and an equally athletic twin sister, Dominique, who currently plays basketball at UCLA. Regardless of the age gaps, Danielle would always shoot around or play one-on-one against her siblings to showcase her athleticism and work on her craft.
“There was a lot of rivalry,” Williams said. “We’re a pretty competitive family. Even when (Dominique and I) would play with my older brother and sister, it was pretty competitive.”
Up until college, Danielle and her Dominique were nearly inseparable on the court. Whether it was their in-house rivalry or collective dominance during high school and AAU basketball games — where they sometimes competed against older age groups and men's teams — they constantly worked to make each other better. And that’s why it was such a shock when they decided to go separate routes for college.
“It was difficult to realize we won’t be on the same team ever again," Danielle said. "We’ll be playing against each other."
Despite taking different paths, they still share something in common: the number 20.
They both sport 20 to honor current Indiana Fever guard Briann January.
The Williams sisters have adored January ever since they were growing up in Phoenix, Ariz., loving basketball and watching January play at nearby Arizona State. January also helped coach the AAU teams that the sisters played for — where they got to develop a relationship with the WNBA player, with whom they still speak occasionally.
Danielle particularly admired January’s style of play and swagger on the court, something that she tried to incorporate into her own game as she became a budding star in high school.
Being apart from her sister was tough, but moving across the country to Michigan proved not to be as difficult.
Williams committed to the Wolverines at the beginning of the summer after her junior year of high school. She had fielded offers from a number of Division I schools, but she fell in love with Michigan’s campus and the players she met during an unofficial visit, and was uninterested in East Coast schools she visited afterward.
“This place is awesome,” Williams said. “It seemed like I could be successful with whatever I did here and that was the goal for me. I really believed in Coach Arico’s vision.
“I visited in June, and (Barnes Arico and her staff) had just gotten the job in April. They just offered to take me around campus in their free time. It was springtime, too. They could’ve been doing their own thing.”
Williams’ transition to Ann Arbor from Phoenix encountered the difficulties one would expect for an out-of-state freshman: cold weather, figuring out bus routes and balancing practices and academics.
Her transition was made smoother, however, with the help of some of the older players on the team — namely 2015 graduates Cyesha Goree, Shannon Smith, and Nicole Elmblad, who were juniors when Williams was a freshman. The way those three mentored her on and off the court was something that Williams wanted to emulate when it came time for her to lead the team.
Two years later, when those three left, Williams was named Michigan’s captain and earned the chance to follow them.
While her junior campaign was statistically her best season on the court for the Wolverines, her impact lay in the newfound role she served. Williams and Thompson became conduits for the Michigan players and coaching staff, acting in motivational roles for the team and as a channel of communication between the rest of the team and the coaches.
“She’s a kid that understands her role, but she wants to give a significant amount to our team and she wants to contribute,” Barnes Arico said.
Added Williams: “If (my teammates are) doing well and being successful, then I’m being successful, too. That makes me really happy to see people’s growth. It’s hard to see it in yourself, so when other people recognize it, it helps when you’re struggling.”
Now in her senior season, she has a full year of experience as captain under her belt and continues her role as the vocal middleman for players and coaches.
This sentiment is felt throughout the team, which views Williams not only as a friend, but as someone to look up to.
“We call her the mom of the team,” said freshman guard Akienreh Johnson. “Mom … she does stuff that maybe the kids don’t like but she does it because she knows that it will help us. Danielle is the person to make sure we’re in line. She’s not our babysitter, but she gives us reminders and helps us out. I don’t think she knows how much that really helps.”
Williams has thrived in her role as captain, but she has also shown flashes of the talent on the hardwood that brought her to Michigan in the first place. Her most defining moment came during last season’s WNIT quarterfinals against Temple, where Williams drew a charging foul with just 4.6 seconds left in regulation to seal a 77-76 victory. Williams described that moment as “awesome,” but she says she’s never been one for the spotlight.
“I could play the whole game and have a great game, and if we lose it doesn’t matter,” Williams said. “My mindset is ‘Why would I want to go somewhere else and play a more prominent role when I have the ability to get better and push myself here?’ ”
As Williams approaches her final season, it’s fair to say that she’s been put through the wringer with Michigan basketball. She went from starting 20 times in her sophomore season to just seven her junior year. Only once has she gotten either double-digit points or rebounds. She’s endured three straight seasons of WNIT eliminations. And high expectations loom for the NCAA Tournament in her final go-around.
But her legacy transcends what has happened on the court, despite the fact that she's content to be a role player for the greatness she expects from Michigan women’s basketball.
Michigan has the offensive and defensive weapons to make a tourney run, but Barnes Arico knows that it simply wouldn’t be a possibility without Williams on the roster.
“There’s not a day that goes by,” Barnes Arico said, “that I’m not thankful that Danielle Williams is in the program.”