He’s one of the most accomplished, polished and mature freshmen the Huskies have ever welcomed – and I’m not even talking about basketball or him being one of the nation’s top incoming point guards.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Click here to sign-up and recieve Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.
SEATTLE – Nigel Williams-Goss is special.
I’m not even talking about basketball.
Oh, sure, you probably know he’s a McDonald’s and Parade magazine high school All-American who played point guard on one of the nation’s top schoolboy teams, Findlay Prep outside Las Vegas. He has lost fewer games in the last five years as he has fingers.
One of the nation’s top-ranked players in this year’s recruiting class, Williams-Goss played with 17-year olds when he was 13. He was one of only three high-school seniors who joined a group of elite collegians this June at the Under-19 World Championships in the Czech Republic. Williams-Goss had 15 points in a game-high 29 minutes as the United States, led by Florida coach Billy Donovan, easily win the gold-medal game.
Four weeks into preseason practice, Williams-Goss is already the most vocal Husky on the floor. He claps and encourages teammates four years older than he through drills. Then he goes out and does that drill harder than anyone. During last Friday’s first full-team scrimmage Williams-Goss stood at the top of the key and directed his guys where to go with his hands and a pointed finger, demanding better floor spacing and balance. He showed a un-teen-like poise while in the rush of fast breaks, always seeming to find the open man.
“He’s just uncanny, his ability to run a team and to do things right,” Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said before practice Tuesday.
Asked if he’s ever coached a freshman this mature, this much in command weeks before his first college game, the former UW and NBA guard shook his head.
“As a head coach or an assistant, I’ve never coached one (like him),” Romar said.
And he’s led NBA point guards Nate Robinson and Isaiah Thomas in 12 years as the Huskies’ head coach, plus Tyus Edney, when Romar was an assistant who won the 1995 NCAA title at UCLA.
“He has a special gift,” Romar said of Williams-Goss. “Young people so often want to fight the system. They want to do it their way so much you have to fight that battle all the time. He has one agenda: to be the best, and to help his team be the best. When he’s out there playing it’s refreshing to see that.
“He’s developed a belief among his teammates.”
Including with C.J. Wilcox.
“Nigel is just a solid, solid point guard,” the fifth-year senior and Huskies’ leading scorer said. “He sees the open man. He doesn’t try to do too much. Good defender; I think you guys are going to be surprised at that, he’s a really good defender.
“He’s going to open up a lot more shots for me.”
That’s all fine and swell, especially to the Huskies’ hopes of ending their uncharacteristic, two-year drought of being left out of the NCAA tournament.
But what makes the Huskies’ new, 19-year-old point guard truly special is all he’s already done off the court.
"As much as I love watching him play basketball, I’m most proud that he works so hard at being the best he can be in all aspects of his life, in his academics and in being a good person.”
“Precocious” only begins to describe Nigel Williams-Goss.
He’s never gotten anything but an “A” in any class, in any grade. Ever. That includes four college-level classes he’s already completed, still two weeks before his first college game. He got an “A” in a 101-level psychology class he took online during his senior year at Findlay Prep. This summer at UW he aced geology, plus social welfare and foreign policy.
And the fourth course?
“I had a Pilates class,” a chuckling Williams-Goss said, almost under his breath. “So we’ll say three college courses.”
“I’M SO PROUD OF HIM”
Williams-Goss turned 19 last month. A few days ago he called his mother, Valerie Williams-Goss, with exciting news. It wasn’t that he’s been running with the starting unit during Huskies preseason practices. It wasn’t that he will be a starter from the first game of his college career, UW’s opener Nov. 10 against Seattle University, either.
It was how well he had done on an economics test.
“Obviously, I’m so proud of him,” Mrs. Williams-Goss said Tuesday by phone from Las Vegas, where she has a private practice as a therapist while finishing up her Ph D. in human services.
“But as much as I love watching him play basketball, I’m most proud that he works so hard at being the best he can be in all aspects of his life, in his academics and in being a good person.”
Since he was in sixth grade Nigel has delivered food to the homes of the elderly and the sick participating in the “Meals on Wheels” programs in the Portland and Las Vegas areas, part of regular outings he enjoys with his maternal grandmother. He’s so close to her he has her initials tattooed atop a cross on his torso. The names of Nigel’s mother and his father, Virgil Williams-Goss, a former Air Force staff sergeant who was his AAU coach from third through eighth grade and is now in the insurance industry, are inked into his shoulders.
“Because they’ve always been there for me,” he said of his parents.
Including to his high school far from home. Nigel’s mother, father, grandmother and two cousins whom they’ve helped raise moved with Nigel from Happy Valley, Ore., to Henderson, Nev., before he began ninth grade so he could accept the scholarship Findlay Prep offered him. Its coaches had seen him dominate an AAU tournament in Las Vegas.
Nigel, his ideals, his work ethic and his headiness have helped mold his seven-year-old nephew Kayden. Kayden has lived with Williams-Goss’ family for years.
“Nigel is Kayden’s idol, his role model,” Valerie Williams-Goss said.
Nigel has volunteered at homeless shelters. Since he was in third grade he’s served hot meals at food banks during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
What else does he do, speak Chinese or something?
“When Nigel was in third grade we decided to put him in language training. We gave him Chinese lessons,” his mother said.
Two days a week a native Chinese speaker came to the family home in suburban Portland, and one day a week Nigel went out for his lesson.
“By fifth grade he was speaking Mandarin,” his mom said.
Williams-Goss laughs and says his Mandarin is quite rusty, almost lost, because he hasn’t used it since the start of high school.
“Yeah,” he said Tuesday, “I didn’t want to take Spanish, which is like the fall-back language everyone takes. So I took Chinese.”
We can all thank Lon Kruger that this almost-too-good-to-be-true teen is a Husky.
HOW MANY McDONALD’S ALL-AMERICANS HAVE THIS?
When Williams-Goss was a sophomore already starring at Findlay Prep he committed to Kruger and his UNLV staff a few miles down the road. But in 2011 Kruger left for a bigger job leading Oklahoma. Williams-Goss re-opened his recruitment, and in the summer of 2012 he committed to the Huskies.
“Then when Harvard got into the picture, that made my decision a little more tough,” he said.
Coach Tommy Amaker has turned one of the esteemed academic institutions in the country and the world into not only an NCAA tournament team but one that wins games once there. Amaker saw this straight-A student with maturity and basketball talent beyond his years as a perfect fit in Cambridge, Mass., both to continue the Crimson’s basketball run and to eventually become a Harvard graduate.
“Obviously with Harvard and the academics there, you have to take a close look at that,” Williams-Goss said. “That threw a wrench into things.”
I mean, c’mon, how many McDonald’s All-Americans almost sign with Harvard?
“No, I don’t think anyone has listed Harvard,” he said, smiling and thinking of other elite high-school players in the last decade. “Not that I know of.
“It was really tough. I mean, I loved every second of my official visit out there (in April of his junior year of high school, before he visited UW). I had a great relationship with Coach Amaker and with coach Yanni Hufnagel (Harvard’s recruiting coordinator), who is now at Vanderbilt. That was really tough. Washington and Harvard were my final two schools. That was really tough on me.
“But at the end of the day, I couldn’t tell Coach Romar no twice.”
He is five weeks into his first full academic term of college, yet Williams-Goss already knows what he wants to major in.
Make that, what two fields he wants to major in.
“I want to double major, in psychology and communications. My mom she is currently getting her Ph D. in human services and has her master’s in psychology,” he said.
His mom has worked for more than two decades in private practice as a therapist and counselor, often for at-risk and troubled youth. Nigel said he may also work with children for a career.
Four weeks into preseason practice, Williams-Goss is already the most vocal Husky on the floor. He claps and encourages teammates four years older than he through drills. Then he goes out and does that drill harder than anyone.
His father was in the Air Force for 10 years as a recreation specialist. In that time met Valerie, a former high-school track and basketball player and bodybuilder. Virgil was stationed at an Air Force base in England. The former junior-college basketball player for a short time at Contra Costa College in Richmond, Calif., described Wednesday how he was released from active duty for a few months each year to play professional, club-level basketball in England. He then went into the mortgage business in Portland, and since 2004 has been a licensed insurance agent in Oregon and now in Nevada.
Nigel’s older brother by seven years, Andre, played high-school basketball and is now a staff sergeant in the Air Force.
Nigel credits his upbringing for already knowing what he wants to major in, just weeks into college.
“Just being fortunate to grow up in a two-parent household, with both parents being really successful,” he said. “Both of my parents are educated, so learning as much as I could from my parents has really helped me.”
Williams-Goss has a goal to carry that 4.0 GPA all the way through to a UW degree.
Even if the NBA drafts him early a couple years down the road, he says he will follow what Thomas did this past year and return to finish his degree.
“You are starting to see the trend among NBA players, even guys who leave early, coming back to get their degrees,” he said. “My main goal is to get to the NBA, obviously; that is all of ours. If I am ever blessed enough and get the opportunity to do that, no matter when that is, I will definitely get my degree.”
“Like I said, I’m just fortunate. Basketball is going to end at some point, and so that education is really going to help me longer than where basketball takes me.”
Wait, hold on … he’s how old?
“I really want him to be different than a lot of athletes,” his mother said. “I’ve always taken a different approach with Nigel. He once scored 60 points in a game as an eighth grader. In sixth grade he was scoring 30 points playing against eighth graders. None of that mattered to me. What mattered to me was him making his education a priority.”
A SUITE ENCOUNTER
Williams-Goss’ parents still wonder a bit about Harvard.
“I really, as his dad, wanted him to go to Harvard, the reason being it’s a special pride for me being a minority that Nigel’s academic achievements are above his athletic ones,” Virgil Williams-Goss said.
“If he’s fortunate, he’ll play basketball until he’s 30. From 30 to 80, he’s got to live. For me, basketball has always been a means for him to get an education. … It’s extremely important to him and to us that he gets his college degree.”
Virgil’s wife agrees that “Harvard was a really hard thing for me to not have him do."
“But,” Valerie adds, “the bottom line was Coach Romar watched him grow up.”
When the family lived in the Portland area she was friends with Darnell Valentine, a Trail Blazers guard in the 1980s. When Nigel was in middle school Valentine was the Blazers’ director of player programs. Valentine hired Valerie Williams-Goss for a short time to be a counselor with the Blazers.
That’s how Nigel’s mom had access to a suite at the Rose Garden for a Blazers game six years ago. She brought her younger son, who by then was a middle-school and AAU hoops phenom.
Romar was also in the Rose Garden that night, to watch former Husky Brandon Roy play. And it just so happened Romar was in the same suite as Williams-Goss and his mother.
“The news camera was in there, and they were filming Coach Romar,” Nigel said. “I just went up to him and introduced myself. I told him I was a local basketball player and that I would like to come up to one of his camps if I could.”
Romar’s first impression of the chance meeting wasn’t grand. After all, can you imagine how many parents come up introducing a teenage son of theirs, especially one who plays basketball to Romar?
“I didn’t think much of it,” the coach says now.
But over the next year Romar kept hearing about this eighth grader who was lighting up Portland’s high-school players. While a 13-year-old at Sunrise Middle School in the Clackamas school district, Williams-Goss was starring with an under-17 AAU team from Oregon.
Soon, he was scoring 40 points per game, shredding teams around Portland, routinely practicing at 5:30 in the morning.
Romar invited Williams-Goss to his Huskies elite summer camp for high schoolers.
“He was the only one going into ninth grade in the camp. And he held his own,” Romar said. “But what struck me most was how mature he was, and how comfortable he was interacting with adults.
“He was just so ambitious.”
About that same time Findlay Prep, which had just won a mythical national high-school championship led by Avery Bradley from Tacoma’s Bellarmine Prep, offered Williams-Goss a scholarship.
He broached the idea to his parents of moving to Nevada to play ball. They agreed only when they got assurances from Findlay Prep that Nigel would be enrolled in honors courses at Henderson International School, a partner private school.
That decision worked out well, eh?
When I talked to Huskies coaches the last year or so about Williams-Goss, as he won nationally televised games, went undefeated until a loss in the national semifinals for a mythical national championship and played in the prestigious Jordan Brand Classic, the one word I kept hearing was: “Winner.”
All this isn’t to say he’s definitely going to be the best freshman player UW has ever had. He admits he needs to work more on left-hand drives into the lane, that he needs a better mid-range jump shot. He’s about to learn in game situations the intensity Romar demands on the defensive end.
All this is to say Williams-Goss is as uniquely accomplished and mature a freshman as the Huskies have had.
“I’m a fierce, fierce competitor,” he said. “That’s all you can do, compete and leave it all on the floor. If you do that, you can live with the outcome or the result.”
Oh, he has one more set of tattoos, to the left of the Portland skyline that covers his chest, near the words “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.” He has renderings of five keys. Each has an inscription: “Sacrifice. Love. Dedication. Family. Loyalty.”
“Those,” Williams-Goss said, “are the words I want to live my life by.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page.