Elizabeth Williams, the 6’3 center on the Atlanta Dream, wants to become a doctor when she grows up.
It’s the family business, after all—her father is a doctor, her mother is a nurse. During her four years at Duke University, in between record-setting games on the court, Williams earned a degree in psychology and interned at the Duke Medical Center, where she spent time in the operating rooms, observing brain and spinal surgeries.
“The longest surgery I saw was a spinal surgery,” Williams told The Summitt when the Dream visited the Washington Mystics earlier this month. “I was in there for eight hours, then I had to leave to get some food. But the surgery kept going.”
Perhaps this explains why those who know her describe her warm, engaging, down-to-earth, and downright relaxed personality—she knows what life-or-death situations look like, and it’s not basketball.
“It gives you a perspective in life,” Williams said. “People are struggling every day, getting brain surgeries and stuff, learning how to walk again and talk again. And we’re fortunate enough to just be able to play basketball.”
Williams is the inside anchor for the Dream (5-5), a team that has surprised a lot of people in the league with its competitive start to the season. The tight-knit group has adjusted well to life without its superstar Angel McCoughtry, who decided to sit out at least part of this WNBA season to rest her body.
“Everybody was just really willing to step up, and we’ve done a good job playing team basketball,” Williams said. “We’re just being excited to play together every day.”
This season, Williams is averaging 8.3 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game, and 1.1 blocks per game. Against Seattle this week, she had four blocked shots, two steals, and 10 points.
She is the anchor of the league’s fourth-ranked defense, and she takes her role seriously.
“It’s exciting to stop the other team’s best player, or just be a presence in there,” she said. “That’s the reason I got traded to Atlanta, because we needed a presence in the post. That’s what I came here to do, just block shots, be disruptive, move my feet, and be a really athletic post player.”
Williams is quiet, sweet, even bubbly—she doesn’t fit the ferocious stereotype of a defensive-minded player. But blocking shots and defending the rim comes naturally to the former Blue Devil.
She blocked a shot in her first 91 games at Duke, and ended her college career with 426 total blocks, the ninth highest in NCAA history. She was the 2015 NCAA National Defensive Player of the Year, which resulted in her being selected fourth overall in the 2015 WNBA Draft by the Connecticut Sun.
Her pro career didn’t get off to a booming start, though. She only played 21 games her rookie year in Connecticut, and came off the bench for an average of 11 minutes those contests. She averaged only 3.3 points per game.
But last year, after spending the offseason playing for a team in Turkey, she absolutely came alive. She was traded to the Dream from the Sun, and started all 34 games for the Dream, averaging 11.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game. She beat out Tayler Hill of the Washington Mystics for Most Improved Player of the Year honors.
The combination of getting more playing time overseas and getting traded to a team where she was the right fit was a magical one for the 23-year-old.
“I gained a lot of confidence overseas because I actually had to play more,” she said. “Rookie year I didn’t play a lot, didn’t have a lot of confidence. Then I went overseas, got a lot of minutes, then I got traded and I kind-of just kept that going.”
But Williams hasn’t just grown on the court since moving to Atlanta; she’s also found her voice off of it, thanks primarily to her friendship with teammate Layshia Clarendon, an outspoken activist for LGBTQ rights, gender equality, and people of color.
“We learn a lot from each other,” Williams said. “She’s more vocal. She’s always pushing me to lead from the front, I try to lead from example, try not to talk too much. But she’s like, ‘You have good things to say. Say them.'”
As a black woman, and the child of Nigerian parents who was born in England and immigrated to America when she was a child, Williams has realized the importance of speaking up in today’s polarizing political climate, and she’s been doing so more frequently, both on social media and in the press.
“Being a first-generation American, it gives you a change of perspective,” she said. “You see how my parents came over here and they worked super hard just to give us everything, and they just grew from the ground up, so it’s inspiring to me too.”
Whether it’s in the operating room, in the lane, or on Instagram, Williams is not lacking perspective—or confidence.
When asked how the Dream were going to do the rest of the season, she didn’t miss a beat.
“We’re just going to keep killing it,” she said. “That’s my prediction.”