Having graduated two all-county players from last season's state championship squad, there were questions coming into this winter about the staying power of Oakland Mills' boys basketball program.
But, instead of looking at the task in front of them as a daunting challenge, Scorpions junior Naquan Williams-Day says he's always seen the situation as a golden opportunity. After serving as a secondary player on last year's team, finishing fourth on the team in scoring at 9.2 points per game, Williams-Day knew he finally had a chance to become a star.
Sure enough, this season the explosive guard has transformed himself into one of the county's elite players on both ends of the floor and, in the process, helped Oakland Mills (18-1 county, 20-2 overall) capture the program's first county championship since the 2012-13 season.
Williams-Day has more than doubled his scoring average, up to 19.7 points a game (third highest in Howard County). He also is leading his team in steals (69), threes made (50), blocks (23) and free-throw shooting percentage (72 percent).
Throw in averages of 5.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game and he just may be the county's most versatile weapon.
With the playoffs getting set to begin, Williams-Day took some time out to sit down with sports editor Brent Kennedy to discuss his growth as a player, the great chemistry he has developed with his teammates through basketball and football, and how this year's squad stacks up to last year's state championship team.
There's no debating it, you are improved this year in pretty much every aspect of the game. What has gone into you getting so much better?
Honestly, it just started with me knowing that I needed to fill the shoes of Will (Robinson Jr.), who our offense basically revolved around last year. Going through to states, I knew my role was to basically feed him the ball and be ready as basically just a shooter and defender. But this year, I'm now taking on those things that he did so we can keep winning. I remember saying to everybody right at the end of last season, I'm going to come back and it's going to be a new Naquan and you all going to be like, 'Where did this come from?' All the time when I was at the gym working, I was just thinking about that and how I wanted to show everybody … that I could shoot better, dunk better, get more steals — basically just do more of everything.
I heard you had a big summer, could you already see big differences at that point?
For a long while I was jumping around from AAU team to AAU team, going from Howard County Elite to Maryland Rebels just trying to fit in. But then Sixth Man (Warriors AAU) called me and picked me up and said he saw a lot of potential in me. Our practices are like all about getting yourself better through doing things over and over. And he takes us to this training on weekends, which really made a difference too. All that and then him teaching me the lines and angles of the game … everything just like got easier and easier when I was out there playing.
Was there a moment you remember when it all clicked?
Yeah, we went to Greensboro in North Carolina for a tournament. You walk in there and there were college coaches everywhere, and I mean coaches that you see up on TV. When I was there, I was getting buckets easy … like without even trying. I was focusing on just playing my game and it just came. I remember thinking, man, if I'm doing this here then when I get back to Howard County, watch out.
In terms of this year's team, what has been going so well to keep you guys on such an elite level?
The thing that keeps us going is our chemistry. Even when we aren't playing basketball, we are always together and trying to link up. And in the game, it's great because we all just trying to make each other smile. It's funny because we always trying to make Daniel (Kiely) smile, because he's always so serious but we know if we can make him smile its going to be a good day. We just have a lot of fun together. Last year's team had chemistry, but it was just different.
You talk about chemistry, how much does the fact that most of you guys also play football together play into that?
I mean it all makes us closer, but I tell you that losing in the playoffs for football this year definitely was a big moment for all of us. There's something about that hurtful feeling of losing with your brothers that just makes you want to work that much harder together to not have that happen in basketball.
You certainly had some success personally on the football field, but basketball seems to be your preferred and better sport. Has that always been the case?
It's like a mixed feeling because my first love was football. Ray Lewis kind of got me. There's just something about his energy and how he was able to get his guys going. His love for the sport made me fall in love with the sport. But then when I was like 12, I had a really bad experience — a really terrible season — and it kind of changed things a little. Then that's when basketball kind of took over. I mean I always had a basketball in my hands, but honestly I was not that good at all when I started. If you had seen me play, you would have been like, 'Man, stick with football.' But then eighth grade with the Columbia Ravens things kind of picked up for me.
This season, you guys have only lost twice, but one of those losses came pretty recently in a rivalry game against Hammond. How have you guys handled that one?
I mean the only reason it kind of still stings is because of the crowd and how hyped they made it. But we won one and now they won one, so it's a rivalry and there are good players on both sides. For us, we just all hate losing. So after the game we talked about it and all just realized we all had to step it up even more going to playoffs. It was a lesson for us and we've been trying to make a statement ever since.
Now that we've reached playoffs and this team has established its identity, how do you think it stacks up against last year's squad?
I actually see a lot of similar qualities to last year and there are a lot of the same players. But it comes back to chemistry, because when we get in a tough situation we can just look at each other and be like, 'Time to turn up.' And we just all like, 'Bet.' We've been through it all together, we have that state championship together, and that's something we didn't have in last year's playoffs. We know what it takes and now we all really trying to get back there on that Maryland court and do it again.
Are you guys feeling any pressure?
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I don't think it's really pressure, more us trying to show that we're no fluke. Will and Mamadou (Ndiaye), they were great players, but they weren't the only pieces of the puzzle. These guys on this team, we want to show that we are the real deal too and we can get it done just like last year's team did.