Four years later, Rodney Williams is there.

As I wrote in today’s Star Tribune, while Williams has been stellar through the season’s first two games, it hasn’t really been a topic of conversation anymore – mostly because we expect this now. The forward proved he could be consistent, and dominant at the end of the season last year, and he’s only picking up where he left off.

It’s what coach Tubby Smith originally envisioned from the Minneapolis native when he brought in the heralded (No. 24 nationally) class of 2009, which also included Trevor Mbakwe, Royce White and Justin Cobbs.

And four years later, Williams is a bright spot in what has otherwise been a recruiting effort that has been often defined by losses, misses and guys that didn’t pan out.

From that class, White never played a game, Cobbs transferred after his freshman season and Mbakwe’s performances have been limited due to legal issues and injury.

“A lot has changed since we first got here,” Mbakwe said. “But I’ve been fortunate enough to play with him for four years and see his game evolve, and, you know, I’m happy for him.”

It has been a long road for Williams, though, who came in with jaw-dropping athleticism and lofty expectations, but hadn’t really put it all together until the end of last season (when he averaged 18 points and six rebounds over the final eight games).

2009-10: 4.2 ppg 1.6 rpg 14 steals

2010-11: 6.8 ppg 3.5 rpg 20 steals

2011-12: 12.2 ppg 5.6 rpg 50 steals

Through two games this season, he’s averaging 14 points and 6.5 rebounds.

“We knew his athleticism, we knew he was as good an athlete as we were going to sign, as we’d signed since we’ve been here,” Smith said. “But then you had to develop all the other stuff and it just takes time.”

The real chance came after Williams shifted over the 4-spot to replace an injured Mbakwe, and suddenly he looked as though he’d rediscovered his natural position.

“One of the biggest things is I think he’s taken a lot more pride, and put a lot more effort into his defense and his rebounding, which was always what I thought he struggled with up until last year, when he made that move.”

Williams has wowed Smith in other ways, though, as he’s grown.

“Now he’s our team captain,” Smith said. “He’s really matured in that area. He’ll be the first one to tell you, he was pretty immature. So he’s grown up a lot and become a good leader for our young players. And they really look up to him and respect him. And I do, too. I respect what he’s done, and that’s why we’ve got NBA scouts coming to practice all the time, because of him, because of Trevor, because we’ve got the type of talent now.”

That talent, being so close to the NBA, could help lure future recruits to come to a program that can claim success in developing its players into professionals.

And with game-changing local classes in 2014 and 15, the Gophers will take every advantage they can get.

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