Rudi Williams, thriving for BYU men’s basketball off the bench, scores 26 in win over Utah

Williams has scored 26 points twice in the past four games in which he has been the sixth man.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Rudi Williams (3) is celebrated during a timeout as Brigham Young University hosts University of Utah in Provo, Dec. 17, 2022.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Rudi Williams (3) grimaces as he collides with Utah Utes guard Lazar Stefanovic (20) as Brigham Young University hosts University of Utah in Provo, Dec. 17, 2022.

Provo • The BYU men’s basketball team brought in Rudi Williams to be an ostensible replacement for Alex Barcello. A point guard who had plenty of experience and leadership abilities. A point guard who can not only set up the offense, but also be a playmaker and get his teammates involved.

But Williams struggled to open the season. He won the starting spot but was inconsistent on the offensive end. The worst part of the start to his season was his turnover rate, which was among the highest in the NCAA. Still, coach Mark Pope opted to keep him in the starting lineup for the first nine games of the season.

Then Pope made a decision. Against Utah Valley — a disappointing loss for BYU — Williams came off the bench in favor of return missionary Dallin Hall. It was a curious move mainly because Pope had been talking ad nauseam about the team’s inexperience being a major reason for its early struggles.

But the move worked. Williams has thrived in his role as a sixth man, scoring in double figures in three of the past four games. He scored 26 in Saturday’s win over the Utah Runnin’ Utes at the Marriott Center, and also went off for 26 in the comeback road win over Creighton.

“I’m still doing the same stuff I do coming off the bench or starting the game,” Williams said. “I’m still trying to lead this team and I’m still trying to be aggressive with the ball in my hands. So there hasn’t really been much of an adjustment. They just don’t say my name at the beginning of the game anymore.”

But it certainly appears as though something within Williams has changed. Other than a 33.3% shooting night against Western Oregon, Williams has been shooting much more efficiently since making the move to the bench. He shot better than 44% against Utah Valley and Creighton, and shot 69.2% against the Runnin’ Utes.

Then there’s the turnovers. In the past four games, Williams is averaging 2.75 turnovers — he had none against Utah. In nine games as a starter, he averaged 3.78 turnovers per game.

It seems with Williams off the bench, the Cougars are in a better position to win games.

“I just feel like if it was going to be something that was gonna help this team win and be successful, I was all for it,” Williams said of his reaction when presented with the idea of coming off the bench. “I’m kind of older now. So that stuff doesn’t really make me flinch and I’m not really fazed by it.”

Pope said that in all his years of coaching, he hasn’t seen a player continue to be a positive leader after losing a starting spot like Willams has. He said that Williams and Hall were the last to leave the pregame meeting, and he overheard Williams saying he would tell the freshman what he’s been seeing in the game at the first media timeout.

“Here Rudi is coming off the bench and he’s starring ... he’s on this incredible run,” Pope said. “And he’s mentoring this young guy saying, ‘Hey, you’re out there doing it. I’m gonna watch everything, I’m gonna give you a debrief when you get back.’ That’s why Dallin Hall is successful. That’s what Rudy Williams is made of.”

Williams has come into this young BYU team and been the vocal leader. That hasn’t changed whether he has started or come off the bench. In practices, he has gotten in teammates’ faces and openly challenged them. He’s also been the team’s biggest cheerleader during stints he’s not playing.

“The way I’ve kind of went about it is just having the mentality of wanting to help my guys get better,” Williams said recently. “We’re kind of a young team. A lot of our young players play a lot of minutes. So I feel like I took the duty of just teaching them stuff they’ve never known before — how the college game works and stuff and how long and how up and down the games can be. So that’s kind of what I take on, my responsibility every day when I come to practice.”

Jaxson Robinson, who is also a transfer, is roommates with Williams. The pair has tried to bring their experience at bigger programs and tried to impart their knowledge on their new teammates. Robinson, however, is a quieter person and likes to lead by example.

Williams played at Kansas State and Coastal Carolina before landing at BYU. Robinson played at Texas A&M and Arkansas.

The way Williams leads, though, has been invaluable, Robinson said recently.

“It’s good to just have somebody that’s always out there talking to us and giving us the information that we need on the fly when coach might not be able to,” Robinson said.