Evanston Township High School alum Elyjah Williams has quickly become a jack-of-all-trades on the court for Northwestern University. The versatility he provides is a big part of what makes him so valuable. Fans and teammates focus on his versatility on the offensive end, but he’s also able to guard most positions on the floor with his unique blend of size, strength and speed.
“We worked constantly with him,” said Wildkits coach Stacey Moragne, who remains Williams’ skills coach. “He put the work in to become a better passer. He always had a good IQ, but you can see as he got older, it starts to click. Elyjah will be there early. The first one there and the last one out.”
The work Williams has put into his craft is evident through the statistical jumps he made every year while playing for Fairleigh Dickinson University. His points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks all improved every season until he joined Northwestern.
Although he is currently in his final year of eligibility, playing in the Big Ten with Northwestern, Moragne thinks Williams still hasn’t shown how good he can really be. This season has included career lows in points, assists, rebounds and minutes of play for Williams.
“I still think his best basketball is yet to come and we haven’t actually seen the ceiling for Elyjah,” Moragne said.
High school leadership
On Dec. 31, 2016, the ETHS Wildkits needed one more stop to make it to overtime of the championship game in the Beach Ball Classic. They were tied at 76 points with Philadelphia’s Imhotep Charter Panthers, a top-10 team in the country, holding the ball with seven seconds left to play.
Imhotep Charter senior guard Daron Russell rushed down the floor and flung himself through three defenders for a layup but left it too strong off the glass. Waiting in the lane, Russell’s teammate David Beatty was able to outjump Wildkit Malcolm Townes and tip in the game-winning basket.
It was a colossal disappointment for the Wildkits, who had won their previous five games of the tournament to make it to the finals and had fought tooth and nail to hang on versus a top team in the country.
The Wildkits slowly drifted off the floor with their heads hanging as Beatty was tackled to the ground by his teammates in celebration.
As they walked back to the locker room, Townes tried to take responsibility for failing to box out on the final possession, but Williams couldn’t let Townes take the blame for the way the game ended, recalled ETHS head coach Mike Ellis.
“Elyjah was the first one to say, ‘No, we all had a play that we could have made to win that game,’” Ellis said. “He always thinks about 12 to 14 other guys before he thinks about Elyjah Williams.”
Williams’ sentiment struck a chord with the group, Ellis said, and they all agreed that Townes shouldn’t be blamed or blame himself. The coach said some players shared what they could’ve done better to help the team win, even those who didn’t log a minute of game time.
Coaches say that’s something unique about Williams. He’s a guy other players want to follow.
“One thing about Elyjah, he’s a very easy person to follow,” Ellis said. ”He is sincere in getting to know you and he wants to understand what your needs are as a person. He’s just a person in life that puts others before himself.”
That hasn’t changed with career twists and turns that led him back to Evanston as a valued player for Northwestern University.
“He was a leader on a team that made the NCAA Tournament,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said of Williams. “He’s been a winner. He went to Evanston High School and won big in high school,” a legacy that followed him to NU.
On the floor, Williams has developed into a tantalizing prospect, a walking anomaly.
Williams played four seasons at Fairleigh Dickinson University before transferring to Northwestern to play for his hometown Big Ten team.
Williams is 6-foot-7, 220 pounds and has the skills of a guard. He can battle with the physicality of opposing bigs under the basket, grab a rebound off the glass and then run the break and make the right pass like a floor general, all on the same possession.
He flashed those skills and abilities at ETHS.
Known for positive attitude
Moragne is the sophomore basketball head coach at ETHS. He grew up in Evanston and played basketball at ETHS years before Williams, but the two have been able to develop a special relationship.
“It’s crazy, my best friend who I grew up playing basketball with lived right next door to Elyjah,” Moragne said over the phone. “So I’ve known Elyjah basically his whole life.”
Moragne coached Williams at ETHS and on his own AAU team. Moragne and Ellis both praised Williams for being incredibly unselfish and always putting what was best for the team before himself.
“He’s very selfless in a world where everyone else is selfish,” Moragne said. At ETHS, Williams was also known for his unrelentingly positive attitude.
“I’ve known Elyjah for the past eight years and I’ve never seen him have a bad day, which is remarkable. … Elyjah is always positive and upbeat,” Ellis said. “Not necessarily a bad day in terms of performance in basketball, but in terms of life. He’s a very positive person and that positive energy is infectious.”
That positive energy in practice helped establish a culture that led to a lot of winning for the Wildkits. Williams was part of a group that was more than willing to put their egos to the side and do whatever was necessary to win.
“He led by example,” Moragne said. “I think because of his hard work and dedication, and how he treats other people it was easy for people to see that he was one of the leaders. It’s one of the reasons why he was such a key asset to our program.”
Junior year injury
Most high school students spend Christmas Day opening gifts, surrounded by family. Not Elyjah Williams. On the Christmas of Williams’ junior year, Ellis received word that Williams had broken his foot playing basketball at the local YMCA.
Both Ellis and Moragne were understandably upset with Williams, a key part of their team who only played one month out of five because of this injury. Williams told his coaches he was at the YMCA because he wanted to get more practice in since the team had a day off.
“I mean, I can’t knock him. I told him, ‘Next time, just sit your butt at home and open some presents,’” Moragne recalled while laughing.
“That’s Elyjah, you know what I mean? He’s on the high school varsity team that’s state-ranked and he’s shooting at the Y,” Ellis said.
Coming back to Evanston
During Williams’ junior and senior seasons at ETHS, there weren’t a lot of scholarship offers coming in.
“It was a last-minute scholarship scenario where he ended up at Fairleigh Dickinson, so he didn’t have a lot of Division I opportunities,” Ellis said.
Williams played four seasons with Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and averaged a career-best 13.9 points and 7.6 rebounds on 55% shooting from the field in his senior season. Because of the COVID-19-shortened season, Williams was given an extra year of eligibility and teams across the country now expressed interest in adding him to their roster.
Included among them were Loyola Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, University of California-Riverside and Northwestern University, which presented Williams with a chance to return to Evanston.
Williams announced his commitment to the Wildcats on April 10.
Having the opportunity to play against the better teams in the country was a factor in his decision, but he also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come home and earn a degree from Northwestern.
“I don’t think there’s words that can express being the first of this century, Evanston guy, graduating from Evanston and coming back,” Moragne said. “It means the world to our community in Evanston and gives the younger generation of Evanston kids hope because not only did he have to be good at basketball, but if you’re going to go to Northwestern you have to handle the classroom as well.”