A 2013 McDonald’s All-American Team nominee, fifth-year senior Jai Williams redshirted his freshman year in order to recover from a surgery performed during his final year of high school at Philadelphia Electrical & Technical Charter.
“I kept spraining my ankle and the joints in my ankle were bad, so they had to take cartilage out of my knee to go in my ankle,” Williams said.
Not being able to play or practice with his teammates as a freshman was tough for Williams, especially while the team was traveling and he was left on campus alone, but he used his time productively. Arriving to campus close to 300 pounds, getting in better shape became the priority.
“I spent a lot of my time with our strength coach [Brian Bingman], so he helped me get in shape and lose some of the weight,” Williams said.
By the end of his freshman year, Williams was down to about 270 pounds. He was down to 260 pounds the following year, and is now listed at 235 pounds.
“I really dedicated a lot of my time over the summers to basketball and getting in shape,” Williams said. “I sacrificed spending time with my family because I was so serious about this. I just spent most of my time working out, working with the coaches, working with the strength coaches, and even on my own time, I’m always putting work in.”
Academics were another priority for Williams, who will be graduating this May.
“[Not playing] my freshman year, I really had to focus on school work to make sure I was eligible for the next year,” Williams said. “Sometimes athletes think, ‘You know what? I’m not playing, so I don’t really care about school.’ That’s the wrong approach to have because if you do have that approach, it’ll bite you in the behind. Definitely take advantage of [the opportunity to focus on] academics while you’re not playing.”
By the start of his sophomore year, Williams was fully healthy and ready to play. He debuted at Drexel on November 17, 2014, playing two minutes but suffering a broken tooth that sidelined him another five games.
“I was very nervous because college basketball is a lot different than high school,” Williams admits. “In high school, I was bigger than everybody, so the game came easy to me whereas here, when I stepped foot on the floor for the first time, every possession is a competition. Every possession basically you’ve got to go hard.”
He returned for a game at 10th-ranked Villanova and played 11 minutes while grabbing his first career rebound. He scored his first points against Massachusetts and saw action in 11 other games that season.
After winning the 2016 Atlantic 10 championship as a sophomore, Williams played his way to the team’s Most Improved Player award his junior season, playing in a career-high 27 games and averaging 2.7 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
Now, in his fifth year, Williams sees his role as that of a leader with plenty of wisdom to pass on.
“Since I’m the oldest guy on the team, I definitely try to help my younger teammates out as far as staying focused,” Williams said. “I definitely bring a leadership role and I bring a toughness role to this team. Even though I’m not out there on the floor a lot, when I do get my chances, I’m rebounding, getting dunks, getting layups and doing all the dirty work. [I try] just to be a tough guy, play hard, hustle, get rebounds, defend, and score when I can score.”
Five years offers a player plenty of time to learn and Williams claims the most important lesson he’s learned is to pay attention to details.
“Even though I didn’t practice with the team [my freshman year], I watched a lot of practice,” Williams said. “We had a lot of seniors, and they were good seniors too, so I watched them and how they interacted with Coach [Martelli] on a daily basis and what they did on a daily basis to make sure the team would be better. I definitely give credit to those guys because I learned a lot from them.”
While he’s winding down his final season at SJU, Williams doesn’t expect this to be the final season of his career.
“I definitely plan on playing professionally,” Williams said. “I’m not sure how that will go because it’s my first time experiencing that, so we’ll see, but I definitely do plan on playing professionally after St. Joe’s.”
Williams understands that a professional career isn’t given, but the lessons learned at Saint Joseph’s will help him earn one.
“I just learned you have to be willing to get better every day, work hard, and pay attention to detail.”