Cracking the starting rotation appeared out of reach at first.
Ja’Leah Williams just won a state championship for her high school, Blanche Ely, up the road in Pompano Beach. It was the school’s first in almost 30 years.
But the minutes at Miami weren’t guaranteed.
“When I got here, I doubted myself with not getting playing time,” Williams said. “It actually gave me confidence knowing that the team needs me and I’m here for something and not just here to sit on the bench.”
As her first season progressed, Williams used her confidence to work into a starting role in the Atlantic Coast Conference and eventually earn ACC All-Freshman Team honors.
Even in her earliest moments as a college player, she didn’t hesitate to challenge the Hurricanes’ veteran backcourt to prove she belonged.
“I remember the very first practice where she was on defense and Kelsey Marshall, a fifth-year and a captain…has the ball at the top and we’re in a defensive drill,” Miami coach Katie Meier recalled. “Kelsey’s ready to start the drill and Ja’Leah just walked up to her and said, ‘Pop!’ She stole the ball and went full court for a layup. Just like, ‘Hey, I’m here, too.’ … I turned around and just laughed. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this kid isn’t backing down to anyone.’ She’s got some guts.”
Williams had a high school basketball career many kids can only imagine. She never doubted herself with her “gremlin mindset” that fostered her play style to stand out as one of Florida’s top talents by her sophomore season.
Not much later, however, a far different kind of adversity struck.
The speedy 5-foot-9 guard required spinal surgery to treat scoliosis before her next season.
The X-rays were anything but promising. Williams was inactive for months, isolated from athletics and the chance to show her physical skills at recruiting camps.
Yet, Williams’ focus didn’t shift away from basketball at all.
“Through the whole recruiting process, I never truly understood how severe the scoliosis actually was because she never expressed that she was feeling down or had any uncertainty about if she would ever play basketball again,” Meier said. “I thought it was just an endoscopic surgery the way she handled it.”
In her mind, Williams could bring the glory back to Blanche Ely and later compete in a program like Miami’s, even if not every college coach was willing to take a risk.
“At the end of the day, I’ll always have that chip on my shoulder where people [like myself] will always get overlooked,” Williams said. “So, it’s not really [anything] that really touched me, I just knew what I had to do from that moment. I wasn’t going to let that bring me down.”
The former Broward All-County selection’s return was as strong as her evolved impact on the court this season.
“Ja’Leah has so much brightness and resilience. She had such faith that scoliosis wasn’t going to beat her,” Meier said. “When I saw the X-rays, I was shocked because it was a huge surgery. She is always going to come back, she is always going to have a smile on her face and she is always going to believe that the next thing that happens is going to be positive.”
As Williams regained strength to move on the court again, her athleticism didn’t fade. She dialed up miles on the odometer running track in South Florida’s humidity to bolt past opponents on the hardwood, those of who now fall behind her in the ACC.
“Once my team gets the ball, I’m out and running down the court,” Williams said. “I’m already down [attempting a] layup, so all my teammates have to do is throw the ball. I’m a great catcher. I was doing track before basketball, so I just wanted to finish out track in my high school season. I didn’t want to go my senior year without running track because I started with track.”
Back surgery is an obstacle that few can overcome but to say that Williams overcame it is an understatement. She has made a major impact on this Hurricanes squad after starting the year playing off the bench behind graduate guard Mykea Gray.
Her surgery could have taken away her senior season of high school, but Williams didn’t allow the scoliosis to hold her down.
Williams has brought energy to the Canes all season long, providing a spark whenever the team needs one.
During Miami’s trip to the Bahamas, Williams took off, playing a season-high 35 minutes in her first career start against No. 4 Indiana. She went on to start all but one game the rest of the regular season and ACC tournament, cementing herself as a vital player in Meier’s rotation.
“The Bahamas trip, that was my impact game,” Williams said. “That brought out the Ja’Leah that this Miami team needed. It was really a growing experience.”
Perhaps her biggest impact came in Miami’s first meeting with Louisville in a game where Williams scored a career-high 16 points, five assists and three rebounds in a heartbreaking loss at home.
But against an identical No. 4 Louisville team weeks later, Williams stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals in the upset victory.
“She’s literally just like me. She’s very goofy, but she’s someone who when it comes to game time, she’s mentally locked in and she tries to do anything that will try to help Miami win games,” Marshall said. “[Whether] it’s guarding the best player on [the opposing] team, grabbing the most rebounds, getting steals and impacting the game from her passes.”
In one of the toughest conferences in college basketball, Williams has adjusted extremely well, ranking in the top-five among ACC first-year student-athletes in scoring, assists, rebounding and steals. She has paced the conference’s freshmen in steals, averaging 2.0 steals per game on the season.
“The game is faster and quicker, and everything is up to speed. Practice, too,” Williams said about the adjustment to the college game. “Kelsey Marshall has been here for five years. Learning the game from her is amazing. I didn’t actually think I would get to play with her. I’ve been watching her game since I was getting recruited.
Never folding in the face of adversity, Williams became just the fifth player in Miami program history to be named to the ACC All-Freshman Team. She was also named to Miami’s Bookbusters Honor Roll after achieving a GPA that was above 3.0.
“With adjusting everything from schoolwork to having extra workouts, finding time to do something and getting rest for your body, too,” Williams said about the off-court adjustment.
Rather than shy away from competing in the starting lineup of a team with Final Four aspirations, Williams ensures her play style doesn’t go unnoticed.
Now, as she welcomes her former high school teammates and coaches, in addition to her family, behind the Hurricanes’ bench, they get to witness how Williams continues to overcome hurdles against the best in the nation.
“I want to show them that this is how you play,” Williams said. “This is how you’ve all got to attack in high school [basketball]. Don’t wait until you get to college to do it, you’ve got to do it now.”
Williams and the Hurricanes look to carry their momentum from their historic run in the ACC Tournament into what they hope to be the next edition of postseason success no matter which powerhouse program stands in the way.