WALTHAM, Mass. — One glance at Akeem Williams’ sneakers was enough to tell that his basketball background was a bit different from the other NBA draft prospects in attendance at the Boston Celtics’ practice facility Wednesday morning.
Williams, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound guard, sported scuffed-up, light blue-and-red Nikes. He played his college ball at UMass Lowell, a Division II program until this past season. Of the five other players invited to Wednesday’s pre-draft workout, four (including Michigan State big man Adreian Payne) hailed from major college programs and another played professionally in France.
After spending four years in a small-school atmosphere, Williams jumped at the opportunity to showcase his skills for the NBA team he grew up rooting for and prove that he can hold his own with his power-conference peers.
“It’s a little bit of a dream come true,” the Brockton, Mass., native said after the workout. “I got the call a couple of days ago. … I was lying in bed when I got the call, and as soon as I got off the phone, I went to the gym.”
The phrase “a dream come true” was a common utterance from Williams, who came to Lowell by way of Avon High School — located less than 25 miles from TD Garden — and The Winchendon School. He starred at Avon but saw his playing time drop during the second of his two years at Winchendon, dashing his hope of playing Division I college ball.
Instead, Williams settled for terrorizing the Division II ranks, breaking UMass Lowell’s freshman points record before going on to lead the nation in scoring during both his sophomore (17.7 points per game) and junior (19.9) campaigns.
“Growing up, I always wanted to play Division I,” Williams said, “and I got a scholarship to a Division II school. So from that point, I was kind of playing with a chip on my shoulder. I just wanted to prove to everyone that I belong in Division I.”
He finally got that chance in 2013, as UMass Lowell made the leap to college basketball’s highest level before his senior season. Williams, by this point the unquestioned leader of the River Hawks’ offense, proved to be a prolific scorer at D-I, as well, leading the America East in scoring with 15.3 points per game while ranking third in the conference in free-throw percentage and sixth in assists.
That transition was not without growing pains, though. The River Hawks were spanked 69-42 by then-No. 7 Michigan in their opener and went on to lose 11 of their first 12 games before putting together a respectable 8-8 record in conference play.
“We got the call late summer to go to Division I,” Williams said. “From there, it was just a lot of hard work. Once we started playing, we got Michigan off the bat. That was kind of a dive into the whole experience.”
Williams does not have any other NBA workouts planned, and he admits that a career in professional basketball might send him overseas. Regardless, he is confident he’ll be able to look back on his playing days with no regrets.
“I thought I’d be playing Division II for four years,” he said. “Then we get an unsuspected bump to Division I, and next thing I know, I’m working out with the Celtics. I couldn’t ask for a better career.”