Jewel Williams already took her all-round game to new highs in 2023 to be instrumental in the Cockburn Cougars winning a first NBL1 West championship, but she’s already set her sights on improving even further in 2024.
Going back to her mid-teenage years and Williams was always one of the brightest emerging prospects in West Australian basketball, and she went on to make her SBL debut at the Kalamunda Eastern Suns as a 16-year-old.
It didn’t take her long to prove what a prolific scorer and strong shooter she could be and became a key payer at the Eastern Suns, and even earned a WNBL opportunity at the Perth Lynx.
However, the 2023 version of Williams is now a much more complete player who is capable of running a team’s offence as point guard, who can handle being targeted by the opposition, and have a winning impact on her team in so many ways aside from just scoring.
That’s why she could well have been the best player on the court in the NBL1 West Grand Final triumph for the Cougars as they won a first women’s championship last month against the Willetton Tigers, but she’s far from done with her growth looking to 2024.
Goals for 2024
While Williams’ upward trajectory has been significant as an all-round player ready to take the next step in her career the last two years since joining Cockburn, she has no doubt there’s plenty of room for further improvement too.
As a result, Williams is dedicating her off-season leading into the 2024 season at the Cougars to improving her strength, speed and athleticism on a physical sense, and also continuing to work on all areas of her game.
That’s all with the goal of not only having the best season of her career in the NBL1 West at the Cougars even if she’s already 131 games in, but ultimately with an eye to earning a professional contract whether that’s in the WNBL or overseas.
“My goal for this coming season is to get myself ready to make that jump to playing professionally somewhere,” Williams said.
“I want to be able to put enough time and effort to follow that goal, and that means getting my body stronger, faster and those kind of things.
“I will be working on my basketball more because this year I didn’t get to do that as much as I would have liked. So a big focus this off-season and then the NBL1 season will be getting back to that place where I can compete at that level again.”
Cougars championship winning coach Tyrone Thwaites was excited to get Williams into the Cockburn set up two years ago because he saw the potential that she had to turn into the all-round guard she is now becoming.
He still sees more growth in her game as well and is excited to see what that means for her 2024 season.
“Her upside is still huge and we saw a really good shift with Jewel over the last six weeks of the year up until now,” Thwaites said.
“Her mindset is starting to change and I think the penny has dropped on what’s required to get to the next level and we are genuinely excited about what her off-season involves, and what she’s going to look like next year.
“If she commits to what her mindset is allowing her to do at the moment, we’re going to see a transformed Jewel and I also think with KP retiring, it gives a little bit more space for new leadership.
“It means we’ve got to evolve and there’s some scope there for Jewel. This was the first year she’s had to play in her career in a really good team. That meant there was a shift in dynamic in how she had to play.
“That was a challenge for her and by the end of the year, she’d grown accustomed to what that looked liked. While it was an adjustment year in a lot of ways, and a good year, next season will be pretty significant for her I think.”
Feeling of winning the championship
To be part of history by playing in the first ever women’s championship for the Cougars is something that Williams is always going to cherish.
But ultimately it was seeing what the moment meant to so many people especially retiring captain Kirsty Whitfield that is among the memories that will always stick with Williams.
“It honestly really was surreal and it took a long time for it to set in. On the night obviously it was amazing and everybody was so happy, and I was just so happy for KP honestly,” Williams said.
“I felt like it was so important to her and meant so much to her, and then for Ty and the coaching group and everybody, to be able to achieve that for the first time at Cockburn that was awesome too.
“But for me personally, it didn’t even set in for a few days after which is when I actually started to settle on knowing that we actually won, and how cool that was. You never know if it will ever happen again so it was an amazing feeling.”
Now that there has been a bit of time for the dust to settle on the historic championship that Williams was part of with the Cougars, it’s sunk in a little bit and it’s always going to be one of her career highlights no matter what happens from here.
“In the moment it doesn’t really settle in completely right away and then with the National Finals the next week, I guess we couldn’t really fully soak in the win and the fact that we got a ring because we had to turn around to play again the next week, and put as much into that as we could,” she said.
“But definitely now it has sunk in and you can figure out how much it actually means because you’ve had time to let it all sink in.”
Feeling of playing so well in a Grand Final
Not only did Williams get to play in a championship with the Cougars, but she was such a key part of it. While Steph Gorman had her own outstanding Grand Final performance with 19 points and some tremendous second half defence on Alex Sharp, Williams was mighty unlucky not to be Grand Final MVP.
That was because she did a terrific job to withstand the physical pressure applied on her by the Tigers to run the Cougars offence so well, she set up her teammates, she made her own big buckets, rebounded and even had a block that was crucial.
Williams finished with 12 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in the Grand Final victory against the Tigers. A championship would mean a lot even if she didn’t contribute so much, but it certainly was a nice feeling.
“For the last few weeks and in the finals campaign I was just trying to stay really focused, and make sure that I kind of did everything that I needed to do and didn’t leave anything out on the floor,” Williams said.
“I just focused on giving my 100 per cent best effort that I’ve ever given because this chance is something that might not come around too often.
“I hadn’t even played in that many finals series let alone grand finals so I was just thinking that I needed to do absolutely everything I can and give my absolute best to play well. I wanted to do whatever it was that the team needed me to do to help us get over the line and get the win.”
Becoming so much more than just a scorer
Throughout all her junior career and then in her formative years at the Eastern Suns, Williams was such a terrific and prolific scorer. Being able to put points on the board and to do it in big numbers, in a variety of ways whether it was shooting from deep, the mid-range or taking it to the rack.
As a result, she judged her performances based on how well she shot in a game and how many points she put on the board, but that focus has changed somewhat since coming to the Cougars and it’s been for the better.
Never was Williams’ growth into an all-round player more evident than her Grand Final performance.
Not only did she make some huge baskets and end up scoring 12 points, but she ran the Cockburn offence brilliantly for the eight assists, she battled against bigger players to pull down seven rebounds and even had a critical block late in the contest against Willetton.
She had such a significant impact on the game and it was more than just scoring, and that’s something that has been a focus of hers and coach Thwaites since they teamed up at Cockburn coming into 2022.
“At first it was a bit hard for me because that’s all I’d ever known and I attached a lot of value with my game to how much I scored,” she said.
“But that’s something that me and Tyrone have been working through a lot in the last couple of years that if I wanted to go and play back at the next level, I’d need to be more well-rounded.
“I think as well playing on a great team like we’ve had here at Cockburn, I don’t need to just be a scorer and it’s actually really cool to be able to do other things, and take joy to feel like I’m making an impact in more than one area and helping my teammates.”
Dealing with being targeted by the opposition
The unintended consequence of Williams being handed the reins as point guard at the Cougars has been the way she has been targeted physically by opposition teams quite simply to try to take her out of her game.
Opposition teams have taken that approach to try and unsettle her and make her life a challenge to bring the ball up the floor, and run the Cockburn offence.
Williams has no problem admitting that hasn’t always been easy to try and deal with, especially with the toll it takes on her body, but at the same time she takes it as a compliment that opposition teams see her as such a threat and she is getting better at dealing with it.
“Some weeks are harder than others and some of the girls are really physical, and they are also a lot bigger and stronger than me,” Williams said.
“So they can really put me through my paces but I think finding that consistency and still being productive to not buy into that too much has been a really big thing for me.
“That will only help my game the more I don’t let that kind of thing worry me, and I can just focus on playing and know that sort of thing will just come. It’s a compliment really at the same time so I don’t mind it even though the physical aspect can get tough.”
Not only did Williams play the first 88 games of her SBL/NBL1 West career with the Eastern Suns, but she grew up at Kalamunda and it was her home for so long, but by the end of 2021 she just felt she needed a change to take her basketball to the next level.
Undoubtedly that’s now happened with the past two seasons that she’s had with the Cougars both in terms of her personal development and now the team success with the championship.
“It definitely was hard to leave and I had spent my whole life there from when I was about eight years old,” she said.
“So it was all of 10 or 12 years that I was there so it was definitely bitter sweet at first moving but it was definitely the best decision I ever made. I absolutely love Cockburn and the culture is so great, the club’s amazing and Ty is great.
“The girls are great and I have absolutely no complaints, and obviously we just won a championship so there’s not much to complain about.”
Being defending champs in 2024
Now as Williams thinks about what the 2024 season might be like as the defending NBL1 West champions, she expects the Cougars to have a target on their back but she’s looking forward to that challenge and rising to it.
“I think that people will have a little bit more respect for us now and not just look at us as being Cockburn who hasn’t historically been the best in the women’s league,” Williams said.
“We felt like we’ve still been underdogs all year and that’s just kind of who we are, and we wanted to make a statement this year and we definitely did that.
“We’ll also have a big target on our backs because we didn’t lose many games so a lot of teams are going to want to get us, but that’s great and we’ll embrace that challenge and roll with the punches.”