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Updated: October 17th, 2011 9:06pm
'Stronger' Rodney Williams hoping off-season overhaul pays off

'Stronger' Rodney Williams hoping off-season overhaul pays off

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It's not hard to see why scouts and media members alike first became enamored with Rodney Williams as a possible NBA prospect.

Startlingly athletic, the Gophers men's basketball team's junior forward can make plays in transition that leave opponents in awe. With a 6-foot-7, 205-pound frame, he has the build to thrive at small forward.

But at the midway point of his collegiate career, Williams has yet to validate the hype that he has been afforded.

Peruse video of Williams when he was at Robbinsdale-Cooper high school and one will see evidence that he far surpassed the majority of competition he faced. However, his transition to the college level is still in flux.

A promising freshman season, in which he recorded four double-digit, off-the-bench scoring outings, gave way to heightened expectations in year two. The results were mixed.

Thrust into a starting role at the three spot, Williams struggled to maintain a consistent output, averaging 6.8 points per game. Despite improvements defensively, his breakout performances were followed by periods of minimal success as he scored five or less points in seven of the Gophers' Big Ten games last year

Given the Gophers' solid 15-man roster, which has recovered from an injury-filled 2010-11 campaign, coach Tubby Smith says he intends to run a fast-paced, transition-oriented offense when his team opens a new season next month.

Though to do that, Williams, who is arguably the Gophers' best offensive weapon when on the move, will need to be a critical contributor.

He doesn't lack awareness of the tweaks he needs to make. Even in the final weeks of last season, he confessed to often second-guessing himself when faced with a scoring opportunity.

"I just need to find the confidence in myself to put up the shots in a game that I know I can make," Williams said in March.

He has taken the steps to do so. Part of his summer workouts was spent at the Lebron James Skill Academy in July, along with teammate Trevor Mbakwe. Instructors at the camp worked with Williams to dramatically restructure his shot, which he admitted is not fully refined yet.

"It's definitely still a growing process," Williams said. "It's different. It's hard to go away from what I've been doing for so long, but it's coming along slowly, but surely."

Adopting a new shooting motion isn't the only adjustment he is trying to make. Smith has at times been free-flowing with his criticism of Williams, calling out his limited aggression when driving to the basket. The junior forward responded with a renewed focus in the weight room, prompting a change his coach has noticed.

"I think he's getting stronger and that will make him more physical," Smith said. "That's one of the areas I've tried to challenge him with -- to be tougher."

The Gophers are hoping, with Williams' strength improved, his tendency to shy away from contact will disappear. He has continually watched film from past games to identify where his hesitation cost the team a scoring chance.

"It helps me to want to get better and want to work on that kind of stuff," Williams said. "So that's coming along too."

The competition for playing time at small forward will be increased with a healthy roster intact, but Williams remains projected to be an opening day starter. Whether he can replenish his NBA draft stock is to be determined, but even the slightest boost in his on-court performance could be a key difference-maker for the Gophers.

Smith loses his appeal

Smith and the University of Minnesota's appeal to rescind the decision from the their court case involving former potential assistant coach Jimmy Williams was denied Monday.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals sided with the original verdict passed by a Hennepin County court in May 2010, which awarded Williams $1 million after it was decided he was misled in accepting a job offer with the University.

When Smith was first hired by the Gophers in 2007, he offered a spot on his coaching staff to Williams, who quit his assistant job with Oklahoma State to take the new role. But "U" athletic director Joel Maturi refused to make the hire as a result of Williams' past NCAA rule violations. Williams then sued the University, claiming Smith wrongfully offered him the job without clearing it with Maturi.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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