From Catan to Piano, Tennessee’s Grant Williams Can Do It All Off the Court
LOS ANGELES -- Every college basketball team has its own pregame ritual. Some prepare for competition with special meals. Others relax their minds and bodies with music and video games.
At the University of Tennessee, the men’s squad got ready for battle with...The Settlers of Catan. The popular German board game, in which players build settlements and swap resources, became a staple of the Volunteers’ game-day routine, thanks to Grant Williams.
“It’s my favorite [board] game in the world,” he tells CloseUp360 during the BDA Sports Management Pro Day in Los Angeles this past May.
Naturally, as the person responsible for introducing Catan to his teammates in Knoxville, Grant had his run of the fictional island more often than not. He did, however, have at least one tough competitor in his midst. At first, Grant hesitates to reveal who that challenger was.
“They're going to hate me if I say it,” he says, before swiftly switching gears. “I'm going to say it.”
That opponent? Former walk-on-turned-graduate assistant Lucas Campbell.
“There's a lot of guys who went on cold streaks and didn't win a lot of games,” Grant says, “but Lucas and I went back and forth a lot.”
Grant insists that having Catan in the pregame rotation helped the Vols on the court. If he’s right, other NCAA teams would do well to take note.
During Grant’s sophomore season in 2017-18, Tennessee won 26 games and finished first in the Southeastern Conference en route to a No. 3 seed in March Madness. The following year, the squad notched 31 victories and a No. 2 seed, and fell just shy of a spot in the Elite Eight.
Granted, Grant’s on-court performance had at least as much to do with those successes as the team-wide Catan habit did. The Houston native finished his Volunteer career with consecutive selections to the All-SEC first team and as SEC Player of the Year, and became the school’s first consensus first-team All-American since Dale Ellis in 1983.
Now, Grant is looking to make some moves of his own as, perhaps, the most well-rounded person in this year's NBA draft.
Grant Williams turned his college teammates on to The Settlers of Catan. (Josh Martin)
Grant began playing basketball when he was 10 and “fell in love” with the game, he says, when he started competing at the high-school level at Providence Day School in Charlotte.
“At first, I was doing it just for fun,” he says, “but then I developed a love for it where I could literally just sit in the gym for hours and watch it, or even just trying to play it as much as I can.”
It wasn’t until the later stages of his prep career—when he led Providence Day to a school-record 30 wins and the 2016 North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A state championship—that Grant started to think seriously about playing basketball for a living.
“Before it was more so, like, ‘Oh, I'm good enough, maybe I could play and continue in college,’” he says. “But then I was, like, ‘It's something I want to be around the rest of my life, and it's something that I feel I can get better at every single day.’”
Prior to that, Grant was never short on interests to explore. The youngest of five brothers, he grew up competing in chess tournaments, studying different languages and playing multiple instruments, including piano. As a high school senior, he performed in Providence Day’s production of the musical Anything Goes.
“I say you have to be a complete person in life because if you're one-dimensional, you'll dry out and may stall out. You won't have anything else that's around you,” Grant explains. “So if you diversify yourself and put yourself in different positions, it really helps you grow as a person in life and on the court as well.”
All the while, Grant’s parents—Gilbert, a math teacher; and Teresa, an engineer at NASA—preached the importance of education. He weighed scholarship offers from Harvard and Yale before signing with Tennessee, thanks in part to a long-standing relationship with Volunteers assistant coach Desmond Oliver, who’d previously recruited Grant at the University of Charlotte.
In Knoxville, Grant’s emphasis on education led him to major initially in mechanical engineering. But the four-and-a-half-year path through that course of study, along with its narrow application, steered him instead towards Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business. He completed his degree in supply chain management—with a collateral concentration in marketing—in just three years. Doing so required “a lot of hours,” he says, including 18 hours (Tennessee’s name for credit units) during his final semester this spring.
“But that helped me time management-wise. That helped me in life,” he says. “So I'm thankful for it.”
It’s another sunny Tuesday on UCLA’s picturesque Westwood campus. The gym inside the Student Activities Center is abuzz with, well, activity. On the same floor where John Wooden once coached the Bruins—and where legends have played summertime pickup for decades—basketball’s next generation is meeting, greeting and (mostly) auditioning for scouts and executives from seemingly all 30 NBA teams who’ve come out for BDA's annual event.
When Grant isn’t busy draining threes and running through drills, the thick-chested 6’7” forward occupies his time by chatting up R.J. Barrett, Jaxson Hayes, other fellow draft prospects, those aforementioned scouts and executives, and seemingly anyone and everyone within reach of his nearly 6’10” wingspan.
“I feel like I have a pretty welcoming personality and I like to communicate with people,” Grant says. “I like to form those relationships just so that it's outside of basketball. We play a game we love. We all have something that connects us, but also having that relationship off the court is amazing, too.”
The pre-draft process generally and Pro Day in particular have brought Grant into contact with some of the game’s greats. Again, he hesitates, this time to reveal which have left him most awe-struck.
“I'm not going to say them because you never know,” he says. “It might hurt the teams, you know?”
Again, Grant swiftly switches his stance on silence.
“I actually will say it,” he continues, without any prodding. “I'll say I met Pat Riley and I was, like, ‘Wow, that's Pat Riley.’ And I met Danny Ainge. I've met a lot of crazy famous people where it's just, like, it's wild. Bob McAdoo. Like, people that my parents talked about. It's crazy.”
Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and other members of the Miami Heat observe workouts during the BDA Sports Management Pro Day at UCLA. (Josh Martin)
But Grant has done more than rub shoulders with giants since finishing school. From workout to workout, he’s gotten a glimpse of the extent to which the game he loves is also a business. In Santa Barbara, where he and other BDA clients have been preparing for the draft at the famed Peak Performance Project (P3) facility, he’s seen how much more he can improve his frame and his game without having to balance schoolwork—and how much time even his diligent routine of on-court training, lifting and cardio work leaves for exploring other interests.
“That’s why I say, if I got to the point where I am now, without having to weigh both sides, imagine when I just had to focus on one thing and have those other things as hobbies,” he says. “Have those things where it's, like, ‘Hey, maybe I'll want to take a finance course and learn how to make more money. Hey, maybe I want to learn how to invest or learn a little bit about the law and learn about how to read my own contract.’”
At P3, his biggest non-basketball lessons have come in Liar’s Dice. Despite how forthcoming he’s been with information he’s thought he ought to withhold, he calls this game of deception “amazing,” perhaps because of the challenge it presents to his very nature.
Just as the staffers there have taught him their game, so, too, has he indoctrinated them into Catan. And though he’s been slow to bring other BDA clients on to the board, Grant has seen their interest in the game grow as he and his trainers have tried to out-settle each other.
“I spend as many hours as I can in the gym, and I spend as many as I can off the court with the people around me,” he says. “I try and stay around people because it keeps you going day by day and keeps me occupied. It also keeps you wanting more in life.
“So I'll say that, on the court, I put as much hard work in as I do with my strategy in Catan.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.