One of the first fans to greet Rodney Williams after home basketball games is his 4-month-old daughter, Suriyah. So it was no surprise that Williams was holding Suriyah moments after last week's exhibition victory over Winona State.
No surprise, either, that when Williams turned his head, Gophers coach Tubby Smith sneaked up and grabbed the infant from her father's arms. It was a lighthearted scene, but Smith has been quick to remind Williams there is much more to fatherhood than playful moments.
"You're not just living and playing for yourself, now you're really going to have to take care [of your duties]," Smith said he told Williams, who joins his Gophers teammates against Western Kentucky on Thursday in the opening round of the Puerto Rico Tip-off. "In any relationship, when there is another child involved or a baby, you look at things a little bit different. So that's what I'm trying to help him understand and appreciate. And I see a real maturity."
When Williams learned his girlfriend was expecting last year, life abruptly changed. But he said having a daughter helped him grow up in ways he never anticipated.
"It'll be a lot of work, but I have a lot of people in my corner, so I feel like this is going to be an easier process for me," Williams said. "Any time I need more time to see my daughter, I just talk to Coach. He makes it happen for me."
Williams is a young man under pressure.
He's trying to balance life as a 19-year-old father, a Division I athlete and full-time student -- and the responsibilities that come with those charges. Accepting that responsibility isn't always a smooth process. Smith kept Williams out of the starting lineup in Monday's 76-69 victory over Siena to discipline him for violating team rules.
But the coach is confident Williams will adapt, both on and off the court. He said he wants Williams to develop into the kind of all-around defensive threat that Damian Johnson was for the Gophers last season.
NBA on the back burner
If you believe NBA draft analysts, Williams -- a 6-7 sophomore forward with a library of dunks on YouTube -- is talented enough to develop into a lottery pick by the end of this season, despite starting only four games last season.
Williams said he refuses to get caught up in the NBA hype for fear he'll lose focus on his more immediate goals.
"That's obviously my dream, but I try not to pay attention to it because if I start paying attention to that, I'm not focusing on my game and helping my team," he said.
His mother, Shanell Williams, helps by reminding him of his responsibilities and the pitfalls of pursuing a pro career without a backup plan, such as a college degree.
"We're not focused on [the NBA]," she said. "We're focused on the U and what he has to do there at the U. And it's buzz, and you know how that goes. It's here today and gone tomorrow. ... He's got things here he has to focus on and he's taking it one school year at a time."
Playing in the Puerto Rico Tip-off could pay dividends in March for Williams and the Gophers. A victory over Western Kentucky probably would set up a matchup against No. 8 North Carolina on Friday. West Virginia could await the Gophers if they get to the championship game Sunday.
But without junior guard Devoe Joseph, who is suspended indefinitely for violating team rules, the Gophers will need other players to get more involved on offense. Williams' teammates expect the former Cooper star, who scored a total of 14 points in Minnesota's first two games, to take on a greater responsibility -- there's that pressure again -- as the season progresses.
"Rodney's role is definitely going to be bigger and he's going to have to really get a lot more aggressive on offense because of his athleticism," senior point guard Al Nolen said last week. "Once he gets into the lane, he's able to score [and] he can draw fouls."
Maturing in every way
It's Williams' perceived weaknesses -- and the consensus he's talented enough to fix them -- that paints a more realistic picture of his current skill level.
Smith said Williams is still learning to play on the wing after dominating in high school as an inside force.
"He's still adjusting, he's still adapting to playing facing the basket," Smith said.
Former Gophers forward Quincy Lewis, who was picked in the first round by the Utah Jazz in the 1999 NBA draft, said Williams has the building blocks to compete at the next level, but he shouldn't be in any hurry to get there.
"I feel like he has talent, but now he has to learn to play and have the killer instincts to go out and take over a game, but I think he will get there," Lewis said.
Williams said he lacked the moxie to play more aggressively last season. But a year of experience helped him get rid of that on-court timidity.
"Coming into this year, I know what I have to do to help my team," Williams said. "The confidence is there."
It's all a part of the maturing process Williams is tackling -- as a player, student and father.