Hidden gem: Word-of-mouth recruitment paves Williams’ path to UH-Hilo basketball

  • Two endorsements were all it took for UH-Hilo men’s basketball coach Kaniela Aiona to bring 5-foot-8 point guard Darren Williams into his program as a junior transfer. “Darren is lightning on the floor and very disruptive on both ends. He can create his own shot and shots for others. Most importantly, Darren has the intangibles you want in a player,” Aiona said. (University of Hawaii Athletic Department/Courtesy Photo)

Darren Williams is often overlooked because of his size. He’s 5 feet 8 and was destined to follow coach Kaniela Aiona to UH-Hilo, where the junior point guard has found a comfortable home.

While at Chaffey College, Williams was named the conference MVP, led his team to a 16-0 league record and averaged 17 points and six assists a game. His team went 23-6, and he drained 82 3-pointers and was an ironman with an average of 35 minutes per game. Besides durability, he was dependable in the classroom and was a two-time scholar-athlete.


All good stuff but he had limited offers after his two years at the junior college.

“I never considered myself an underdog, but my size definitely hurt me,” Williams said. “I needed one coach to give me an opportunity and look past my size.”

“A lot of coaches assume what I can’t do. I needed one coach to see what I could do.”

To unravel how Aiona discovered his hidden gem, go back to December 2018. He was recruiting in Riverside, Calif., and watched Rancho Cucamonga High play, Williams’ old school.

To be an ace recruiter, it’s important to spot talent but equally important to have a network of contacts, who will tell you something you don’t know.

“I spoke with their coach, Bill Burke, after the game, and he told me about his former point guard, Darren Williams,” Aiona said. “He told me Darren was on the smaller side physically, but he matched up with everything I said I was looking for in a PG. Darren was only a freshman at Chaffey, but I looked him up and put him on our recruiting radar.”

Two years later, Aiona was named UHH coach and Chaffey coach Jeff Klein contacted him about Williams.

That’s the best type of recruiting, when someone delivers a gem and the homework is already done.

“Coach Klein echoed all of the great things coach Burke had to say about Darren,” Aiona said. “Darren is lightning on the floor and very disruptive on both ends. He can create his own shot and shots for others.

“Most importantly, Darren has the intangibles you want in a player. He is coachable, consistent, brave and a great teammate.”

Aiona also hit a home run with the character checklist.

“Off the court, Darren is an unassuming young man who doesn’t try to boast or brag. He lets his actions do the talking. He is conscientious of others, organized, and kind. He is a pleasure to be around.”

Recruiting in Hawaii can be a hit or miss. It is paradise but so far away. Williams was hooked from the start.

“Besides being in Hawaii, it was coach Aiona. He’s a good dude, a good person,” Williams said. “He’s genuine, and I watched games at Menlo, how they caught the ball and moved on the floor.

“Hilo has a slower pace lifestyle. I’m not a party person. I chill most of the time. I play video games and cook.”

His father, Darryl, is 5-9 and his mother, Joan, is 5-3. Darren inherited his dad’s loyalty. Darryl Williams is from Philadelphia, where Darren was born. Darryl is a hardcore 76ers fan and both love the Eagles.

Williams’ favorite NBA team is the Minnesota Timberwolves. Wait, what? Why?

He’s a fan of D’Angelo Russell, so when Russell was traded to the Timberwolves the famous Williams’ loyalty followed.

“My family moved from Philly when I was less than a year old,” he said. “It’s definitely still in me. It’s definitely in my blood.”

He and his older brother Devin played ball growing up until Devin broke both legs during his freshman year of high school.

Here’s where good fortune shined on a Williams member. Devin got into the music business and works as a producer. One group Devin works with is Top Dawg Entertainment, one of the label’s flagship artists is Kendrick Lamar.

While growing up in Rancho Cucamonga, Williams, when he was 6 years old, trained under Andre Wallace, who was his AAU coach. He credits his ball skills to his longtime coach.

“I’m basically the same kid, only older,” Williams said. “I’ve been playing for a long time. I’ve always shot a lot of 3s. My parents used to record my games. Coach Andre did a lot for me.”

Though he’s a business administration major, Williams wants to be a basketball coach. He has no better role model than Aiona, who played at Honokaa, went to Weber in St. Louis and started climbing up the coaching ladder.

Williams flew home last week to spend Christmas at home, but he’s already returned to UHH.

Wait, what? Why not spend New Year’s at home? Well, the gyms in California are closed and at most parks, the rims have been removed.

The UHH gym will be open when Williams returns, a nice homecoming of sorts as the Vuls gear up for Pacific West Conference play to start in mid-January.

“I want to play as long as I can. If there’s an opportunity, I’ll take it,” he said. “Then I want to get in the coaching field.

“I chose to get back in the gym. I have a deep passion for the game. I want to stay around the game.”


He’s roommates with freshman Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones, who scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a loss to UH-Manoa on Dec. 19. Williams tallied 13 points with four steals. Ethan Jetter, another freshman, is the other roommate.

Williams already feels at home, teaching Tait-Jones how to cook. The harder job will be convincing the forward from New Zealand to become a Timberwolves fan.

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