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Column: Grant Williams is an All-Time Great at Tennessee

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

Bernard King. Ernie Grunfeld. Dale Ellis. Reggie Johnson. Tony White. Allan Houston. Chris Lofton.

What do all those names have in common? Those players are considered by most Vol fans to be some of the greatest players to ever don the orange and white in men’s basketball at the University of Tennessee. And current Tennessee forward Grant Williams needs to be added to that list.

Williams has brought home several honors this week, adding them to the list of incredible accomplishments he already earned in his first two years as a Vol. Williams was named the SEC Player of the Year by both the Associated Press and SEC coaches on Tuesday, making him the first Vol since Dale Ellis to win the award in back-to-back seasons and only the third Vol all-time to do so. He also earned First-Team All-SEC honors in back-to-back seasons, becoming the first Vol to do that since Jordan McRae in 2014, and he became the first Vol since Chris Lofton in 2008 to be named a First-Team All-American when Sporting News designated him as such on Monday.

It all started for Williams as a freshman when he was named to the SEC All-Freshman team in 2017. He then added the SEC Player of the Year and First-Team All-SEC honors to his resume in 2018 as a sophomore, and he earned an honorable mention on the AP All-American ballot. Then came his junior season that saw him repeat as the conference player of the year and as a unanimous selection on the first team all-conference squad, as well as nabbing his first-ever First-Team All-American honor.

The Charlotte, North Carolina native came out of high school as the No. 191 overall prospect in the 2016 recruiting class. Tennessee’s top competition for his signature were schools like Mercer and Princeton.

In three year’s time, Williams has gone from lightly-recruited big man to one of the best players in the SEC. And he’s well on his way to getting his number retired at the University of Tennessee.

Right now, Tennessee only has four numbers retired in men’s basketball. It’s not an easy feat to achieve, and that’s why Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, Dale Ellis, and Allan Houston are the only four Vols to have their numbers retired in UT history so far.

Given what he’s already accomplished and what he still has in front of him, Williams’ No. 2 jersey could join those four in just a few years.

Let’s go over what it takes for a jersey to hang in the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena to see if Williams qualifies. These are the official qualifications from the university’s media guide:

The student-athlete must have demonstrated outstanding character, integrity, and commitment to UT during his/her athletic career.

Well, that’s an easy box to check off. Williams has been an excellent representative of the University of Tennessee off the court in his three years as a Vol. He volunteers in the community, earns good grades, and was named to both the 2018 and 2019 SEC Community Service Teams.

Any student-athlete under consideration must have graduated or have left UT in good academic standing, which would have made them eligible to return and compete.

It remains to be seen if Grant Williams will return for his senior season or not, but he’s absolutely in good academic standing with UT as it stands right now.

A student-athlete will be eligible for consideration if they achieve three of the five criteria listed below:

  • SEC Player of the Year
  • National Award (Player of the Year, Wooden Award, or similar honor)
  • First-Team All-American
  • Career record holder in a significant category (as determined by the committee) at the UT, SEC, or national level upon completion of career
  • National championship during tenure

Williams has won the SEC Player of the Year twice now, and he just earned the First-Team All-American honor this week. As for the other three? they’re all doable right now for the junior forward.

The 6-foot-7, 236-pound forward is a finalist or semifinalist for several awards right now. He’s a 2019 Citizen Naismith Trophy Men’s Player of the Year semifinalist, a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award semifinalist, a Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year finalist, and was selected for the Oscar Robertson Trophy Final Midseason Watch List and the Men’s National Ballot for the John R. Wooden Award.

Williams already holds the school record for most consecutive free throws made and most free throws made in a game thanks to his 23-of-23 performance from the charity stripe against Vanderbilt earlier this season. But that’s not a career record, so how does Williams stack up there?

Right now, Williams currently ranks seventh all-time in school history in career offensive rebounds with 247. He’s 91 offensive boards away from breaking Jarnell Stokes’ career mark of 337, which is very attainable for Williams if he plays in several more games this season and returns for his senior year. His 483 made free throws in his career is currently fifth all-time, and his 635 attempted free throws places fourth all-time in school history. His 150 career blocks are third all-time in program history, and he’s only 63 blocks away from passing CJ Black’s career mark of 212 rejections.

As for the last requirement of winning a national title? We’ll just have to wait and see about that.

UT’s requirements state that former student-athletes are eligible for jersey retirement five years after their eligibility is exhausted. If the student-athlete left school early without exhausting their eligibility, they become eligible for jersey retirement eight years after they left the university.

Williams still has anywhere between 2-9 games left this season with the Vols, meaning he has 2-9 more opportunities to help cement his legacy as one of Tennessee’s basketball legends. If he elects to return for a fourth and final year next season, he could place his name in rarified air not only among Tennessee’s men’s basketball program, but in all of UT sports history.

When he joined Tennessee prior to the 2016-17 season, nobody saw these type of accomplishments coming for Grant Williams. But he’s absolutely one of the greatest Vols to ever play basketball, and it’s time he’s recognized as such.

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