SULTAN — Watching the boys basketball team from Sultan play, it doesn’t take long to notice Giovonni Williams. In most games, if he’s not the tallest player on the court, he’s certainly the most athletic.
Williams, a senior guard, helped the Turks finish second in the Cascade Conference this season and earn the top seed among the league’s Class 2A teams in the district tournament, which starts Saturday when Sultan hosts Sehome, the No. 4 seed from the Northwest Conference.
As talented as the 6-foot-2 Williams is, it’s a shock to learn this is the first year he’s played organized basketball.
Williams spent his first years of high school at Garfield in Seattle, and last year spent time in a youth education program, though he concedes his attendance was spotty.
In an effort to better focus on his schoolwork — and perhaps play basketball — Williams moved in with his aunt and his cousin, Antonio Rivas, a member of the Sultan High School basketball team.
Turks head coach Nate Trichler was willing to give the newcomer a chance, with a few of conditions — Williams had to attend class, he had to make grades and he had to respect authority.
The latter proved difficult.
“The biggest challenge with him has been him trusting because he hasn’t had a lot of males to trust,” Trichler said. “When I tell you that you’re doing something wrong, it’s because I care and not because I’m mad at you and I don’t like you. I’ve been trying to get that train of thought through his mind that I’m on your side even though I’m telling you that you’re doing something wrong.”
At first, Williams didn’t care much for running in practice, nor was he particularly fond of his teammates.
“The first couple of tryouts, I didn’t like my teammates for some reason,” Williams said. “It was weird.”
Added Trichler: “He wanted to fight some of them.”
Trichler knew that if the talented Williams, who had honed his skills in pickup games, didn’t buy into the team philosophy, the 2013-14 season was going to be a long one.
“I knew if Giovonni didn’t join us and if we tried to join Giovonni, it was going to be an ugly year,” Trichler said. “He had to join us because we have a bunch of skilled kids that have worked really hard at this. His ability one-on-five isn’t going to trump the other four guys I have on the court.”
Slowly Williams started to buy in. Once he did, the Turks began to realize how good they could be with a committed Williams on the court.
Sultan won eight of its first 10 games, including victories over Class 4A Cascade, Class 3A schools Everett and Marysville Pilchuck, and Cascade Conference rival King’s, one of the favorites to win the 1A state championship this season.
Still, Williams frequently found himself on the bench when his play deviated from the team’s philosophy. And despite putting up big numbers — Williams averages 20.9 points per game — he wasn’t allowed to start until his grades reached a prescribed level.
When Trichler was satisfied that Williams had met the academic requirements, he asked the senior if he was ready to start. Williams’ unenthusiastic response shocked the coach. “Whatever you want,” Williams replied.
The next day, when Williams visited his coach in his classroom, Trichler found out the reason for Williams’ lack of exuberance. Unbeknownst to Trichler, one of Williams’ grades had slipped.
“I just got my last grade up,” Williams told his coach, “now I’m ready to start.”
Said Trichler: “He was starting to hold himself accountable. When he didn’t want to start without everything being where it was supposed to be is when I kind of knew he’s on board and we are heading in the right direction.”
But before it all came together, the Turks had to struggle through some adversity.
Sultan lost five consecutive games. The final two losses in that streak were the most devastating. The Turks held an eight-point lead after three quarters against King’s before the Knights outscored them 23-1 in the fourth quarter to win 69-55. The next night the Turks were blown out at home by Cashmere.
The teamwork the Turks had used to claim first place in the Cascade Conference after 10 games was a distant memory. Williams and his teammates stopped moving the ball on offense, resulting in a lack of production.
“We didn’t really play good as a team,” Williams said. “When we’re losing by a lot, I just try to take over and go back to old habits.”
The loss to Cashmere snapped the Turks out of their funk.
“Cashmere woke us up,” Trichler said. “We have to fix the team game. Reverting back to one-on-one isn’t going to get us where we want to go.”
Sultan responded by winning its final five regular-season games. Despite the five-game slump, the Turks still earned the top seed among 2A Cascade Conference teams.
Through it all, Williams has maintained his grades, and said he hasn’t missed a day of school this year.
“He knows he’s capable of anything someone asks him at this point,” Trichler said. “He’s upset because he has an A-minus in a class right now. Before we couldn’t get him to go to school, but now he’s frustrated with A-minuses. That’s a big difference.”
Williams demeanor has changed, too. He’s no longer the angry teen who at the start of the season wanted to fight his teammates.
“In the beginning of the year he put on the tough-guy act,” Trichler said. “In the beginning of the school year everyone was kind of scared of him and he was proud of that. Now he’s the goofy kid around. He’s the guy cracking jokes and smiling. The tough-guy act has kind of disappeared.”
If Sultan can find a way to win two games before losing two in the district tournament, the Turks will be rewarded with a state tournament game and a chance to advance to the 2A state championships at the SunDome in Yakima.
“It would mean a lot,” Williams said of the possibility of advancing to state. “People thought I was just this bad kid and thought, ‘He’s not going to do anything with his life.’ It would mean a lot.”
And for Trichler, the opportunity to work with Williams is what coaching basketball is all about.
“He’s reminded me that when you see a kid that’s that raw and has that little structure in his life, that my job isn’t necessarily to win basketball games,” Trichler said. “It’s to get this kid set up for the rest of his life.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.