When Indian Creek coach Josh Pratt walked in late to his film study practice, he might have seen a group of young basketball players taking advantage of their delayed work and horsing around. He might have seen his assistant coaches trying to do what they could so as to not waste time but to also not overstep on Pratt’s plans. Instead, Pratt saw senior forward Khalil Williams standing before his squad of mainly freshmen, sophomores and juniors, leading the film session.
“I think that's why kids liked him,” Pratt said. “It wasn't just about him, and him telling people what to do. It was a team focus — ‘this is what we have to do.’ I let him go for 10, 15 minutes before I said anything.”
That particular afternoon was just one moment among many in Williams’ trajectory to becoming a leader for Indian Creek. By his example, Indian Creek transformed from a team that began its season with one league win.
Earning spots in numerous all-star games like Wednesday night’s Apple Valley Waste Senior All-Star Classic, Williams amassed approximately 900 points in three years with the Eagles, averaging 17.9 per game this winter with 10.2 rebounds.
“This year, if he didn't score 15 to 20 points, we wouldn't, as young as we were, have a chance of winning,” Pratt said.
Williams didn’t always play this role. As a sophomore, he was the sixth man, a spark off the bench, per then-coach Will Bartz. As a junior, Williams supported six seniors, predominantly shot-blocking and rebounding.
Then came the Gerstell Academy game in late December of his junior season. Williams exploded for 20 points in the victory. There were coaches from college programs in the seats; Pratt remembers them telling him, “He has potential to be a Division I player.”
“For me, personally as a coach, that was his kind of 'coming out party,’” Pratt said. “I was like, this kid has something.”
With four freshmen filling Indian Creek’s ranks this winter, Williams knew he was done playing supporting actor. Pratt knew that too.
“He was just a presence inside,” the coach said. We put him up top of the zone, he'd bring the ball up. We put him in on out-of-bounds plays, where he's coming off screens. I tried to find every way I could get to get him the basketball.”
With his team’s expectations on his back, Williams upgraded quickly. Whereas in the beginning of the season, when he’d opt to travel on the wing in transition, he’d started leading breaks, either making the right pass to the right player or pulling up, popping in a mid-range shot or a 3-pointer. He reeled off 28 points against Reservoir, 27 against St. Paul’s, 25 against future state finalist Broadneck.
Though he was never boisterous or loud, when Williams spoke, his teammates and coaches listened, in sideline huddles and when debating game plans in practice.
“In a small setting, because he’s a quiet dude, he got to have more of a voice,” Bartz said. “He probably wouldn’t have in a bigger school.”
It was by following Williams’ even keel, Pratt believes, that Indian Creek did not submit to its early-season troubles and rallied in later games when they were down by a dozen. Pratt never once witnessed his senior consumed by frustration or foul trouble. Because of that, and Williams’ self-conditioning, Pratt often played his senior for all 32 minutes by the second half of the winter. If he’d rested Williams for even a minute, Williams would say, “I’m good, coach. The team needs me.”
“When you’re in a rut, having a player like that as a senior leader is the most valuable player you can have,” Bartz said, “because it allows everyone else to believe.”
In January, the Eagles hit their turning point when they downed St. John’s Catholic Prep. Junior Khiyon Washington drained the game-winner, but Williams set the backcourt screen to open the floor. Pit against three players hovering around 6-foot-5, Williams managed 15 rebounds, three blocked shots.
After the win and on, Pratt walked into a changed locker room.
“They'd all start jumping around, I'd start jumping around,” he said. “It was like the pressure was off. Khalil was jumping around. You could see the emotion, how happy he was.”
Williams transferred out of Old Mill into Indian Creek his sophomore year, guided by Bartz. The coach drove his new student to and from school daily, sitting with his 3-year-old son Teddy in the backseat. As they drove home one day, Teddy reached for Williams’ hand and said, “Khalil, I love you.”
Bartz accepted the basketball head coaching job at Gilman, his alma mater, in 2017. It should have been a “no-brainer.” But because of Williams, it wasn’t.
“When I left Indian Creek, it was gut-wrenching,” Bartz said, “to leave him. … You get so close with kids like that, they become part of your family. It’s hard, still, to not finish with him.”
There are those for whom it’s a struggle just to roll out of bed in the morning, but not Williams. He trains in the weight room three days a week, shooting every day he can. He molded himself into the sort of Division I player that could also wield a 4.0 GPA, earning him a presidential scholarship to High Point.
Yet, at the same time, Williams’ school life extends outside of basketball as fruitfully. He sings for the solo choir. He leads open-house tours and journeys to other schools like Glenelg Country to lead talks on diversity.
“I just think it's a good thing to do,” Williams said. “I've been given an opportunity to make my mark in the school and I didn't want to waste that.”
Bartz had urged Williams to try out for the school musical in his first year. He landed a part, playing Zeke in High School Musical.
“He totally dove in and trusted me,” Bartz said. “I encouraged him to try new things and get outside his comfort zone a little bit.”
This spring, Williams will also play the role of Specs in the musical Newsies. He hadn’t tried out for any specific part — the supervising teachers assigned various roles to the students after performing a song and a monologue. When he auditioned, Williams channeled his own life into the text.
“It wasn't always easy,” Williams said. “My mom and I really worked to get to this point. I took that energy I had, those struggles I had, and put them into the words, put them into the songs.”
At High Point, Williams plans to study finance while growing his game with coach Tubby Smith
. He’ll see a familiar face in former Southern High standout Curtis Hlland, currently a freshman for the Panthers.
Even 350 miles from Indian Creek, though, Williams hopes he’d left a lasting impression on his teammates and his community.
“All the greatness was already in him. There was no hocus pocus or anything like that. Khalil is Khalil,” Bartz said. “He just needed the medium to show everyone.”
This article was originally published in the March 18 edition of the Capital Gazette News. Click here to read the full story.