Williams fills vital role for Lady Raiders

Nettleton sophomore forward McKenzie Williams is the Newcomer of the Year on the Best Under The Sun girls’ basketball team.

JONESBORO — Statistics aren’t enough to measure the impact McKenzie Williams made in her first full season of high school basketball, Nettleton coach Jason Smith said.

The stat sheet shows the 5-foot-9 sophomore forward finished as the Lady Raiders’ No. 2 scorer and also grabbed the most rebounds on the team. What it doesn’t reflect is her importance on the defensive end for a team that finished 18-12, Smith said.

“With McKenzie, I don’t think that stats tell the tale of just how valuable a player that she is,” Smith said. “Without her, we don’t win 18 ballgames for sure. She was an anchor for us.

“She gave us a lot offensively, but I thought defensively that’s where we saw her biggest improvement from freshman to sophomore year. She moved so much better, she understood coverages, she understood how we were guarding ball screens and different things.”

Williams, the Best Under The Sun Newcomer of the Year, also had several nights when she put up solid numbers in points and rebounds while earning all-conference honors in the 5A-East.

In 30 games, Williams scored in double figures 12 times as she averaged 8.2 points on the season. She also grabbed eight or more rebounds in at least 10 games while putting up 6.8 rebounds per game.

A 16-point, 10-rebound effort against Greene County Tech is one that stands out to Williams when she looks back on her season. There were also impressive showings against Melbourne (14 points, nine rebounds), North Little Rock (10 points, 11 rebounds), Pulaski Academy (12 points, nine rebounds) and Lake Hamilton (13 points, seven rebounds), among others.

Smith said Williams, who scored 19 points against Batesville and grabbed 12 rebounds against Cabot, knew to capitalize when she had an advantage.

“Those games where we had the advantage inside, she was aggressive and really put up good numbers, and then the ones where we may not be looking inside as much, she was OK with that too,” Smith said. “I think that goes back to her just being a team-first kid and a kid who wanted to win no matter what it took.”

Williams said her greatest progress this season was in leadership.

“This year I felt like I became a better leader, working with Briley (Pena) and all the other seniors,” Williams said. “I felt like I had a better connection with them and with my other teammates, I felt like we worked well with each other. The chemistry got a lot better.”

Williams gained some high school experience in 2021 after moving up from the junior high team in the latter part of the season.

The move went well after some initial uneasiness.

“I was afraid at first because I was with older girls and I didn’t know what they would think of me,” Williams said. “After I came to the first practice, I felt real comfortable with the girls. They made sure I was OK.”

Smith said the Lady Raiders needed help in the post after an injury, but the move had more to do with Williams being ready to go.

“To be honest, it wasn’t so much what we needed, it was what she was ready for. We had wrapped up our junior high conference championship, or right at, and felt like as far as her development and her growth, she was ready,” Smith said. “She addressed a need. We had that district tournament and she scored 16 points in the first half as freshman against Marion. She did a really nice job.”

The Lady Raiders’ offense ran through Pena, a Murray State signee who scored more than 2,000 points in her high school career. Smith said Williams never pouted on the nights when she didn’t reach double digits.

“She’s a willing worker and then just a great kid as far as being coachable, always being pleasant, a good teammate,” Smith said. “I don’t know if there’s a kid on our team, I don’t know if there’s a kid in the league, and I know for a fact because I had an official tell me, there’s not an official who doesn’t like Juice Williams.”

A three-sport athlete, Williams also competes for Nettleton’s volleyball and track and field teams. She will pick up basketball again this summer, competing for the Lady Diamonds of North Little Rock when not going to camps with the Lady Raiders.

Smith hopes to see Williams develop a 3-point shot from the top of the key to go with her post game. Williams also expects to expand her game before her junior season.

“I’m trying to do more. I’m not trying to just stay in the paint. I want to be able to dribble more in order to shoot,” she said. “This year it’s going to be more out of my comfort zone, but it’s for me to be better for my next season so I’ll be able to do a lot more than what I do now.”