OKC Thunder's Kenrich Williams living up to his ‘Kenny Hustle’ nickname: 'That’s why I’m in the league now'
TCU’s transfer forward from New Mexico Junior College was playing like a madman.
“Diving for loose balls, taking charges and fighting for every rebound,” Billy Wessels remembered.
It was the second game of Kenrich Williams’ TCU career, and he had nine points and 10 rebounds off the bench in a win against Washington State. Wessels, who was covering the Horned Frogs for PurpleMenace.com, sent a tweet on that November 2014 night.
“Can we call Kenrich Williams, Kenny Hustle?”
The nickname stuck.
It’s easy to see why. Just six games into his first season with the Thunder, the 6-foot-6 backup forward is still diving for loose balls and fighting for every rebound.
“I pride myself on playing hard,” Williams said. “I feel like that’s why I’m in the league now.”
Williams was a standout at University High School in Waco, Texas, but he signed with New Mexico Junior College in 2013 after not receiving a Division-I scholarship offer. One of his teammates in Hobbs, New Mexico, was Raptors center Chris Boucher.
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Williams averaged 10.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game as a freshman for the Thunderbirds, and his first big offer came from TCU, then coached by Trent Johnson.
Williams signed with the Horned Frogs in 2014 — the season after TCU went winless (0-18) in the Big 12.
Williams doesn’t remember much about the Washington State game in his sophomore season, other than it was played at a Fort Worth high school gym while TCU’s arena was being renovated.
And of course he remembers it as the Kenny Hustle game.
“I love the nickname, man,” Williams said. “Any nickname that I don’t give myself and other people give me, I’m cool with it.”
Williams missed the 2015-16 season with a knee injury, but he came back healthy for a memorable 2016-17 junior campaign under new head coach Jamie Dixon. Williams averaged 11.4 points and 9.7 rebounds as a full-time starter.
TCU missed the NCAA Tournament, but the Horned Frogs earned an NIT bid and racked up postseason wins against Fresno State, Iowa, Richmond and Central Florida. TCU then clobbered Georgia Tech 88-56 in the NIT championship game.
Williams scored 25 points with 12 rebounds and four steals against the Yellow Jackets. He was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
“He was one of the hardest workers we’ve coached here,” TCU assistant Ryan Miller said. “I had players say all the time, ‘Well, he gets lucky. The ball just seems to bounce his way.’ No.”
Williams was named to the All-Big 12 second team as a senior, and he guided the Horned Frogs to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years.
“I thought I was gonna get drafted,” Williams said. “I had a draft party. It just didn’t work out.”
But just as Williams found a way to TCU without an initial offer out of high school, he found a place in the NBA with the Pelicans after going undrafted.
Williams signed with New Orleans in the summer of 2018, and he started 29 games in his rookie season. He started 18 games last season, averaging 3.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in 21 minutes per game.
After two seasons with the Pelicans, Williams was dealt to the Thunder in November as part of the Steven Adams trade. Williams will face his former team for the second time this season when the Thunder and Pelicans tip-off at 7 p.m. Wednesday in New Orleans.
“They gave me a chance,” Williams said of the Pelicans. “You always remember stuff like that.”
When Williams arrived in Oklahoma City, Thunder coach Mark Daigneault asked Williams if he had a nickname.
Williams told Daigneault it was “K-Rich.”
“I don’t call myself Kenny Hustle,” Williams said with a laugh.
But Daigneault said he might start using “Kenny Hustle” now that he knows.
“It’s well earned,” Daigneault said. “He’s a hard-playing guy. He’s had two games now where he’s gone in there and kind of cleaned up the end of the game where we’ve been down by 20-plus points. And he doesn’t change who he is in those situations. It’s just a testament to the way he approaches the game every time he steps over the line.”
Sure enough, the nickname still fits.
“It stuck with me,” Williams said, “and I made sure that I never lost sight of what got me here.”