One of the surprises of the young college basketball season is that Notre Dame is now higher in the polls (No. 2) with Donald (Duck) Williams as its leader in points, minutes and inspiration than it ever was with Adrian Dantley, who jumped the Irish for the NBA.
"Duck now has total confidence in his game," says coach Digger Phelps. "He's a complete offensive threat. He's gotten rid of some of that low shooting trajectory with that crazy, unorthodox dead ball rotation that he had at mackin High (in Washington, D.C.). His outside touch is great and with his speed and jumping ability, he'll zoom right past you now.
"He's more patient. He's learned to read defenses and not just play a running, free-lance game."
But Williams brings more to Notre Dame, which has gone 7-0 and has victories over UCLA, Maryland and Indiana, than a 17.9 point average on .542 shooting in only 29 minutes a game.
Williams brings his personality, which has altered the mood of the Irish now that the junior guard is the team's most experienced player and an offcourt leader.
"We have the best attitude now since I've been here," said Williams. "We genuinely like each other. I think that's our key. We find it easy to play as a team. Yes, I guess I hope the team is a little bit like me - easy going, pretty coachable."
Some such explanation seems necessary to account for the improvement of a team that lost Dantley, the superstar from De Matha, plus a 6-foot-11 center and a starting guard (Ray Martin, broken leg) while in return getting little more than freshman point guard Rich Branning.
It would be difficult to find two players, on and off court, more different than the two Washingtonians. Dantley, built like a tree, became an instant starter right out of De Matha. He was unselfish, yet every Notre Dame game seemed to revolve around him, waiting for him to win it or faill. It was Dantley and his violent finesse against the world.
Williams' progress was slow. He averaged 5.8 points, while shooting .394 per cent, his first year. Last season the figures were 12.1 and .487.
Williams arrived from Mackin with a lean build more like a heron than a duck. He was pushed around, "Sometimes things weren't going my way and the coach would say, 'Duck, your time will come'.
"I'm thankful my parents raised me right, or maybe I would have quit. You have to wonder, between the ball and the books, 'Will I be able to make it?'"
But with experience, the confidence that had made him a high schol all-America reappeared. A 16-point performance against South Carolina his freshman year showed Williams "that I could play here."
Before scoring 18 points against UCLA last year, he vowed to himself, "I'm going to show 'em that Duck Williams can really play." By the end of the season a Washington friend could tease him that "every time I turn around I see your face on Channel 20."
Now Williams is ready for the good times.
"Sometimes when I'm playing now I'll think of Austin Carr or Dean Meminger and how I watched them on TV when I was a kid and then went down in the basement and practiced my dribbling with the lights turned out.
"And I'll thing, 'Duck, it's your turn now. Don't blow it.'"