Power Moves From UT's Power Forward
Tennessee Volunteer Grant Williams (HCB, ’19) is well known as a man of stature on and off the basketball court, but he’s also a man of character.Friends and family describe him as humble, smart, persevering, and always willing to lend a listening ear.
Over the past three years, Williams has grown from a promising freshman recruit out of North Carolina to one of the most celebrated players in NCAA basketball. His accolades include winning two back-to-back SEC Player of the Year awards and being named a 2019 First-Team All-American by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
At the same time, Williams successfully balances academics with the grueling demands of athletics, pursuing and completing a degree in supply chain management at the Haslam College of Business in only three years. His family, he stresses, helped him build a solid foundation in academics, self-discipline, and sports.
Basketball is in Williams’ blood. His grandparents, parents, and siblings all play. His father, Gil Williams, was a star at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and later played professionally overseas.
Unlike his older brothers, Grant didn’t fall in love with the sport right away. At age 10, he was named the best player at the basketball camp he attended. That’s when Gil recognized his son’s talent. “He improved every year, and I sent him to Five Star Camp when he was about 12, where he won top awards,” Gil says. “I always surrounded him with good people, good coaches, and good players, so he could watch them and learn from them.”
Although his father could see it, Grant didn’t recognize his athletic potential until he was a junior at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Until then, I didn’t think I was good enough to play at a higher level,” he says. “But over time, my confidence was built.”
Grant became a team leader by the end of his junior year, and recruiters started to take notice. With a high grade point average and well-rounded extracurricular portfolio, he caught the attention of Ivy League schools, including Harvard and Yale—but he chose the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, because it offered the dual attraction of robust athletic and academic programs close to his family in North Carolina.
Up for Every Challenge
Dedication, consistent practice, and the ability to recognize his own weaknesses are major building blocks of Grant’s success. “I recognize what I’m limited by and want to improve on those things every single day,” he says. “So I spend countless hours in the gym, getting shots up and working on lateral movement. Ultimately, it’s about improving my understanding of the game.”
Grant also faced the challenge of balancing academics with the demands of basketball. Somewhat influenced by his mother’s 30-year career as an engineer at NASA, he entered UT as a mechanical engineering student, but decided after a year that it wasn’t the best fit. His friend and Vols teammate, Lucas Campbell, was studying supply chain management and suggested that Grant look into it. “I’m the type of person who loves making connections with people, and he recognized that I’d be good at this,” says Grant.
After researching the major and making the switch, his experience in the supply chain program at the Haslam College of Business was a perfect fit. Whether on the operations or logistics side, he hopes to work in the field when his basketball career is over.
Business, he says, is a lot like basketball. “If you have a collective group of good people working toward a goal, able to cooperate and understand that goal and all the little details that matter along the way, you’re going to be successful. Learning to pay attention to details is a valuable skill in both business and basketball, and it’s important to manage relationships well because you never know who will impact your life in the future.”
While he enjoys stretching himself, Grant admits that the path has not been an easy one. “It’s definitely difficult to pursue both academics and basketball seriously,” he admits. “Like everyone, I have times when I doubt myself, but instead of complaining, I try to push through it because I know all my effort is worth something. Fighting through adversity will make me stronger.”
Driven to Learn
Grant has been called a renaissance man because of his wide variety of interests and skills. Growing up in a musical family, he learned to play several instruments and grew to enjoy a wide variety of genres, including Broadway musicals. He and his brothers also played tennis and golf and competed in track and field. Their mother, Teresa Johnson, introduced her sons to a host of activities, sports, and academic disciplines. “I wanted to make sure they had an appreciation for everything, to understand what their passions were,” she says. “And I hoped that once they found those passions, that would help them define their goals and self-discipline.”
That early exposure to a range of opportunities made a lasting impact on Grant. “I love to learn,” he says. “For me, it’s always been about trying new things because you never know what you’re going to fall in love with.”
That same openness helped the men’s basketball team at UT to grow into an especially tight-knit group over the past few years. Grant’s teammate Lucas Campbell says Grant’s personality played a role in fostering that closeness. “He’s very personable and treats everyone like they’re friends,” says Campbell. “He’s also a good listener, always willing to hear what people have to say.”
The benefits from playing on this Volunteer team are likely to stick with the group. The relationships built by Grant, Campbell, and the rest of the team may well last a lifetime. “We’ve become a bunch of brothers who love and trust each other,” Grant says of his teammates. “In the future, I know we’ll keep in touch no matter where we end up.”
Grant earned his bachelor’s degree in supply chain management in May, and at press time had chosen to remain in the NBA draft. “I want to be the best man I can be,” he says. The NBA draft process is slow and nerve-wracking, but he’s trying to enjoy the ride. “I’ve worked to prepare myself for these decisive moments, so I can embrace them instead of getting stressed,” he says.
In the long term, Grant wants to raise a family, manage his finances well, and stay connected to those he’s met on his journey. “I’ve had a lot of great people surrounding me, whether it was coaches, families, friends, or trainers,” he says. “They have all impacted me on the court or in life, and I am really thankful because I wouldn’t be the man I am today without them. Going forward, I want to keep learning and keep growing through those kinds of connections.”
His mother sees Grant mirroring that kind of mentorship to others already. “He understands that when you move forward, you also need to reach back,” Johnson says. “I’ve seen him put tremendous effort into academics, athletics, and self-development, and sometimes I step back and think, ‘Is that my son?’ I feel honored that God gave this young man to me, and it’s a joy to watch him grow in wisdom, honor, and grace.”