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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Zada Williams calls it a career at Florida

Zada 1
Zada 1

It was the spring of 2017. Zada Williams had just left the University of Miami’s basketball program a few months prior when the season concluded. Now, with the intent to transfer, she was in the upstairs conference room at the University of Florida’s basketball complex to meet with Florida coach Cam Newbauer. 

During the meeting, there was an obvious player-coach connection that was more than the basketball. It was supposed to be about hoops, but that was just the surface of what the conversation meant. 

It meant a new start. But not just for Zada, for a program and a coach. And Newbauer, brand new to UF himself at the time, knew it. 

He knew it with less than a full half of basketball.

“We were that strongly convicted of seeing 16 minutes of game film from her sophomore year,” Newbauer said. “I told her ‘We are convinced with what we’ve seen on film, that you can be an impact player for our program.’”

Then? Tears. Tears and a commitment to a new school. 

After spending two seasons at Miami and only playing a combined 35 games for the Hurricanes, she decided to leave Coral Gables after the 2016-17 season. She then joined Newbauer, who had just left Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, for UF. Three years later, her redshirt senior season is complete. With a likely trip to the NIT taken from the Gators by the concerns surrounding COVID-19, Williams did not know the loss against No. 7 LSU in the SEC tournament would be her final game. 

Still, the starting forward was instrumental in Florida’s resurgent team this past year. The 2019-20 squad finished 15-15 (6-10 SEC). That is a seven-win improvement from the 2018-19 team that went 8-23 (3-13 SEC).

What caused the turnaround? 

There’s a plethora of factors, but Williams was undoubtedly near the top of the list. After sitting out in 2017-18 due to NCAA transfer rules and starting 13 games in 2018-19, she became a centerpiece for this year’s team. 

Most notably, she is the fifth-most efficient scorer in program history, shooting the ball at a 54.7 percent rate. That efficiency is thanks to her versatility. 

She has the physical presence and aggression of a forward with the shooting touch and footwork of a guard. Her father, Kindreek Williams, said playing multiple positions was nothing new to Zada. 

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“When she got into basketball playing little league, we had her play all five positions,” Kindreek said. “She was the point guard that pushed the ball up the floor. She was the wing that’d catch and shoot. She was the center that’d go down low.” 

Her skill set was on full display this season. Shooting 62 percent for the year, Zada averaged just over 10 points per game while playing an average of 25 minutes per game. 

But at her first college home, this was the very thing that caused her departure. Her second season in Coral Gables was supposed to be the year she saw meaningful minutes in college. Unfortunately for Zada, Miami felt differently. 

“Sophomore year we had a couple people graduating,” Zada said. “So I was like ‘OK, if I bust my tail over the summer, I can work my way into position (to play).’ But the team didn’t feel as though that was right.”

Florida did. 

Newbauer’s philosophy on the court includes a finesse style for his post players. He prefers somebody that can skillfully be part of the offense rather than have to overpower opponents. So a forward with a background in guard play was perfect for the Gators. 

“She’s got really good hands and feet, and I saw that in the film,” Newbauer said. “With how she could catch the ball and how she could finish, I knew how we would utilize our forwards, especially an undersized forward like her.” 

Zada 2

So, after UM and Zada parted ways, she joined the Gators, and a new era began in her college hoops career. But this chapter started the same way the first one did: without playing. 

The transfer rules kept her off the court in year one in Gainesville. However, as much as it hurt to not play, she felt better about her career moving forward. With her new coach’s help, she grew to understand that a transfer to the right situation is not a career death sentence, but potentially a career resurrection.

“A lot of people may think you can’t have a good situation come out of something like that,” Zada said. “I was really down on myself for a long time. So that year sitting out, Cam (Newbauer) and (the team) just kept pouring into me and helped build my confidence without even being on the court.” 

Now, as a redshirt senior, she has been in the college basketball scene longer than any of her teammates. Even with one of those years being ineligible, nobody on this year’s squad spent as much time around the game as she had. 

And according to Newbauer, that showed even on her bad days. 

One day, during fall workouts, Zada did what she does best: turned bad situations into good ones. According to Newbauer, one workout in particular was a rough start for Zada. Her attitude was off early on. 

But she made a change. 

“When we went to the next drill, before the workout kept going, she stepped up and said ‘Hey, I want to apologize, my attitude wasn’t right, I was being selfish. But I’m done with that. Let’s go,’” Newbauer said. 

That type of vulnerability and leadership translated into wins during the season. Even with the season cut short, the Gators nearly doubled their win total from the previous season. Zada played a pivotal role in the team's turnaround. Her 10.4 points per game were an improvement from her 2018-19 average, which was just under eight points per game. 

That moment at fall workouts perfectly embodied what Newbauer wanted for his player and his program. 

“It just shows you the growth of the program and it shows you the growth of her as a person,” Newbauer said. “Growth is the word that showed me through everything.”

That continued growth throughout her time at Florida seems to mirror the program’s upward trend. With Newbauer at the helm, and with young stars emerging like guard Lavender Briggs and forward Faith Dut, the future of the program looks promising.

And Kindreek is proud of his daughter. She has accomplished a feat no other member of the Williams family has: Graduating from a university while on a Division I scholarship. 

“It’s been a joyride for us. It’s been a thrill. We have no complaints,” Kindreek said. “We enjoyed every moment and every game we attended. Even when (the Gators) didn’t come out victorious, we still loved to be there and watch her.” 

While the tough climb out of the trenches of the SEC hasn’t always been a joyride for the Gators, the journey does appear to get more joyful by the season. And Zada’s career reflects that trajectory. It also reflects that a breakout season, for a player or a team, doesn’t just happen. 

She became a cornerstone piece for the growth of this program. Her resilience and continued fight pushed Newbauer’s program forward. 

“We had people (like Zada) that were going to be accountable to themselves and accountable to the program, Newbauer said. “We had people that wanted to be better.”

And even with the abrupt ending to the season, 2019-20 was much better. And as the program continues to improve, foundational pieces like Zada will always be a huge reason for the foundation of success under Newbauer. 

“Building a program is so hard, man, Newbauer said. “It takes time and patience and it takes sticking together through the hard times and the good times.”

And nobody knows that better than Zada. 

“I’ve been a part of this growing program for three years, one year where I didn’t even play,” Zada said. “I’ve seen it grow so much. And just knowing that I helped be a part of that, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Follow Graham Marsh on Twitter @GrahamMarshUF. Contact him at gmarsh@alligator.org.

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