How Oklahoma State's Bryce Williams lost his joy, but rediscovered it with Cowboys: 'He feels like he’s at a place that he belongs'
STILLWATER — One random week day before the season started, Bryce Williams sat down for lunch with two Oklahoma State coaches.
Mike Boynton and Erik Pastrana wanted a heart-to-heart.
Williams had transferred a few months before following a miserable season at Ole Miss. He considered walking away from the game entirely.
This lunch was to make sure he was in the right headspace.
Did Williams lose his love for basketball? Or did a situation take that love away?
Williams opened up about his struggles. His affection for basketball was returning.
“They’re just helping me find myself again,” Williams said.
A dozen games into the season, Williams is playing like a new man. Entering Saturday afternoon’s nationally televised game against No. 2-ranked Baylor on CBS, he’s become a game-changer for the Cowboys with his endless energy, athleticism and lock-down defense.
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But this almost never happened.
Williams nearly became a forgotten man. He was a dynamic athlete who starred at the junior-college level, only to find his Division I aspirations were not what he hoped.
But life is about second chances.
“He’s just happy,” Pastrana said. “He’s happy to be here and he’s happy to be playing. I know that’s not how he felt a year ago.
“That’s the best feeling out of everything. He feels like he’s at a place that he belongs.”
Williams first climbed the fence in the ninth grade.
South Sumter High’s gym in Tampa, Florida, wasn’t available. So, Williams and his father, Fred, had to get creative.
And possibly illegal.
The two jumped the fence after hours at a local elementary school to get to the outdoor basketball court.
Bryce, a star wide receiver, had just started playing basketball. He was behind compared to his friends and teammates.
“I was horrible,” Bryce said.
The outdoor court was the only place he and his father could get workouts uninterrupted. They went nearly every day.
Bryce worked on his ballhandling. He shot through windy conditions, refining his form.
“If you can shoot on a double-rim outside court, you can shoot on any rim,” Fred said.
Eventually, Fred talked to a cousin who worked at the school. He started to leave the gate open.
Within a year, Bryce was catching up to everybody else. By his senior season, Bryce was no longer playing football. Just basketball.
He was a star, averaging 28 points, six rebounds and five assists. But college interest wavered after graduation.
Until Pastrana attended a workout at a Tampa middle school the following summer.
After seeing a three-man weave and warm-up drills, Pastrana, in his first year as a head coach, told Fred that Bryce had a scholarship at Daytona State (Florida) College.
Within weeks, Bryce was playing junior college basketball, where he would become a star.
“It was pretty clear at that point that he was our most talented guy,” Pastrana said.
Pastrana wanted Bryce to play for Boynton.
Pastrana spent just one season at Daytona State, leaving to be an assistant at Florida Atlantic. He selfishly hoped Bryce would follow a year later.
But it quickly became apparent power-conference schools were heavily interested. Pastrana pushed for his old friend.
“I’m always really hesitant of pushing a junior college kid to a high-major program,” Pastrana said. “But I thought Bryce was really dynamic and I thought with another year he might have a chance.”
Boynton believed Bryce might be the best junior-college guard in the country. The fit felt natural.
Instead, Ole Miss won out.
“Personally as a parent, Mike Boynton recruited my son the best that any coach could have recruited him,” Fred said. “I was shocked when he chose Ole Miss.”
Bryce said he fell in love with the Ole Miss campus. He never expected to lose his joy.
He averaged just 13.3 minutes per game, scoring 3.1 points. If he made a mistake, he found himself on the bench. He was withdrawn.
“I really don’t know what was going on, but I knew my son wasn’t my son,” Fred said.
Bryce watched with jealousy as the Cowboys beat his Ole Miss squad by 41 in November 2019.
There was joy with that team. He needed to find that himself.
“My confidence was broken last year,” Bryce said. “I was ready to leave the game of basketball.”
Pastrana and Boynton couldn’t help but notice Bryce’s name in the transfer portal last summer.
They both knew Bryce. They weren’t worried about his numbers.
This was another chance for Williams and the coaches.
“We’ve got all these highly touted guys and people see Ole Miss transfer, three points a game,” Pastrana said. “We were as confident in his signing as any signing, just because we knew what he was capable of if he was in the right place with the right people.”
Bryce soon rediscovered his love for basketball while tapping into his enormous potential.
The 6-foot-2 senior entered the starting lineup four games ago. He’s averaged 8.5 points and 1.5 steals on the year. He had the decisive steal and dunk in the final seconds of OSU’s upset of Kansas.
“I think he may be our most complete guard,” Boynton said. “He doesn’t have the size of Cade (Cunningham) and he doesn’t have the girth and strength of Ice (Isaac Likekele), but he has a little bit of both of their skill sets.”
And Bryce is finally happy.
It’s amazing what a second chance can do.
“My son is a totally different guy,” Fred said. “Now, it’s night and day. It’s just a total blessing.”
Jacob Unruh covers college sports for The Oklahoman. You can send your story ideas to him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jacobunruh. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.