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“A coach’s player”: Kenrich Williams hustling his way to a bright NBA future

The former Frog bet on himself this summer, and it’s paying off in a big way.

New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks | Dallas, TX | March 18, 2019
New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks | Dallas, TX | March 18, 2019
Melissa Triebwasser

“He’s just a coach’s player - when I say that, the way I explain it is that if you want one guy out there to make a play, you can count on him to do it.”

New Orleans Pelicans’ head coach Alvin Gentry is learning what TCU fans have known for the last several years - that Kenrich Williams makes plays. He made a lot of them in his three years at TCU, taking the Horned Frogs from 0-18 in Big 12 play to an NIT Championship and the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in nearly two decades.

Now, 37 games into his NBA career, the man once and once again known as Kenny Hustle, is earning his keep in the pro game. After going undrafted last spring and getting cut loose from the Nuggets after a solid Summer League performance, Williams found his way to New Orleans on a full guaranteed deal. He spent some time in the G League early and had a string of DNPs but as trade rumors swirled around Anthony Davis, he started getting opportunities. After a breakout performance against the Rockets that earned him some national shine for pulling down 16 rebounds, Williams soon found himself in the starting lineup, something that was gratifying to say the least. “My first true game was against Houston, I got big minutes, to be in there, make an impact - it was only up from there. I was able to just keep working, keep having good games, and I was able to start. It’s just been great so far.” On the year, he’s averaging just over 20 minutes per game, and has over 30 per over his last ten games. All of this for a guy that Gentry initially was pretty sure would be gone sooner rather than later. “Every day, we come to practice thinking I don’t know if he’s good enough. And he does something else and we think, eh, we’ll keep him for a few more games. Eh, we’ll keep him on the team. Ah, we’ll start him!”

Kenrich is averaging nearly six points and over 4.5 rebounds per game, but is making an impact on the game in a host of other ways - generally by doing the things he did during his career at TCU - no matter what the team’s record is. “I want to come out - you know me - I want to come out every game and play as hard as I can, no matter what our schedule is like, no matter what our record is. This is a chance for me to improve on my game, there is a lot I can improve on. I’m going to play hard.”

In town to play the Dallas Mavs Monday, Williams got a rousing ovation when announced as a starter for the Pelicans out of TCU, and there was even a smattering of his familiar #34 jerseys throughout the arena. The Pels’ organization and fanbase have even adopted the Kenny Hustle moniker, something that is still pretty unbelievable to the rookie who was never a high-level recruit. “It’s been crazy, that’s been crazy. Having all the fans in New Orleans call me “Kenny Hustle” - it’s like home, now, it’s like home like TCU.” Williams had a nice game against the Mavericks, collecting 11 rebounds, eight points, three assists and three steals. He drew a huge charge down the stretch as part of an impactful fourth quarter that saw the Pels overcome a significant deficit on their way to an overtime win. He was also a part of history - Dirk Nowitzki passed Wilt Chamberlain in scoring Monday, hitting a shot over Williams early in the first quarter to move into sixth all time. He had a pretty good sense of humor about the moment. “I was telling everybody I was growing up watching the Mavs, watching Dirk. Being able to be back here and play against him, on the biggest stage, it’s everything. I will always be on his highlight tape.”

While he is having his moment in the sun, he hasn’t forgotten about the program that helped get him there. Williams still follows the Frogs closely, and was watching Sunday when they were left out of the NCAA Tournament. He felt their pain, but had a positive perspective overall. “I follow them a lot. I was watching Selection Sunday the other day… it was tough, it was tough. It was very tough. I remember, I was having visions in my head - I was there, I was sitting right there where them guys are sitting at. But, you know, it’s going to work out. You’ve always got next year, this year don’t look past the NIT. Go in there, win the NIT, and that will show everybody that they were supposed to be in the tournament.”

As he watches his former teammates go forward, and as they use his journey as inspiration for their own, Kenrich can take a step back to appreciate where he has come from and where he is headed. “To come from 0-18 in the Big 12, to every year getting better and better, it’s God blessing me, to be on this stage - it’s everything.”

Same old #KennyHustle, always humble, always something to prove. Frog fans know he will keep doing so.