- Seven-foot center Mark Williams has been key to the Duke Blue Devils’ run to this year’s Final Four.
- His sister, Elizabeth, is a Duke legend whose jersey hangs in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
- Elizabeth spoke with Insider about her brother’s road to Duke, her own legacy, and the Duke-UNC matchup.
Mark Williams is key to the Duke Blue Devils squad headed into a historic Final Four matchup against their rival North Carolina Tar Heels.
But when it comes to carving out a legacy at Duke, Williams doesn’t have to look very far for inspiration.
Elizabeth Williams was a bona-fide legend for the Blue Devils’ women’s basketball team from 2011 to 2015. A four-time All-America selection, four-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and 2015 National Defensive Player of the Year, the middle Williams child set the standard for what it means to find success in Cameron Indoor Stadium. After all, her jersey has hung in the rafters since 2016.
“[Mark is] very much aware of my relationship with Duke and my experiences and what I was able to do,” Elizabeth told Insider. “He watched me from a super young age and was just a fan. And now it’s shifted into me being a fan of his.”
Though the pair of Blue Devil bigs have an older sister, Victoria, Elizabeth was the first member of the family to pick up basketball. At first, she showed interest elsewhere, but it quickly became evident that she was “really tall for soccer.”
When she was around 9 years old, a family friend suggested to her parents that she try basketball intead. The rest, as they say, was history.
“Obviously I just fell in love with the game,” Elizabeth said. “I was playing all the time and playing against guys. I got connected with an AAU team and a trainer-slash-mentor, and then just went through that whole AAU high school trajectory of sports.”
Her little brother, who is eight years her younger, was watching from the stands all the while. And he took inspiration from everything he saw his sister doing.
Soon enough, the little kid who Elizabeth remembers “running around the bleachers at my games playing with his friends” was approaching middle school age and playing basketball himself. And when Elizabeth went off to Duke as one of the nation’s top-ranked recruits, he’d often come to games at Cameron Indoor with his parents to cheer his big sister on.
“When he didn’t have school or anything, he was always the biggest fan,” Elizabeth said. “He would scream when the other team was shooting free throws — he was just so obnoxious at the games.”
“It’s always funny when I see him now and how he’s just a grownup when I think about him at the games, because it’s just like, ‘Who are you?'” she added.
In addition to her array of individual accolades, Elizabeth led the Blue Devils to an ACC championship, two Elite Eights, and a Sweet 16 during her illustrious Duke career. And over those four years — and into the early stretch of Elizabeth’s WNBA career — Mark was back home in Virginia Beach honing his craft and growing like a beanstalk.
“He never stopped growing,” Elizabeth said. “We thought he was gonna be 6’8, 6’9, or whatever. And he just kept growing.”
For a brief time, the siblings were close enough in size that they could play one-on-one in the driveway or local gym. But then, when Mark was 13 or 14 years old, Elizabeth says “he got to the point where he was just so much taller” that she had to put the familial pickup games on hold.
“This is just not fair,” Elizabeth remembered telling him.
As a 7-footer with good mobility and great defensive prowess, Mark garnered considerable recruiting interest of his own by the time he reached high school. Duke was one of nearly 30 programs that courted the eventual McDonald’s All-American and found itself on his narrowed-down list of schools alongside Michigan, NC State, Clemson, Georgetown, Ohio State, Stanford, Virginia Tech, and UCLA.
Though his sister had some obvious bias, Elizabeth made it abundantly clear that Mark shouldn’t feel pressured to follow in her footsteps. But even so, having a Blue Devil great in the family — one who “came up in conversation” on recruiting visits with Coach K and his staff — “influenced [Mark] a lot — maybe more than he even wanted it to.”
“Throughout his whole recruiting process, I told him, ‘You really don’t have to go to Duke — don’t feel like you’re obligated or just because of the relationship you have that you have to go there,'” Elizabeth recalled. “But he was like, honestly, it’s Duke. There’s just such a big connection there because he’d been there as a kid, you know? And obviously his experience on his visit and his relationship with Coach K and all those things.”
“He was like, ‘I don’t think I could say no to this,'” she added, recalling what Mark told her. “‘I want this for myself.'”
So off he went, taking the same trip from Eastern Virginia to North Carolina’s Research Triangle that his sister had taken nearly a decade earlier. But unlike Elizabeth, Mark didn’t have instant success as a Blue Devil.
He averaged 7.1 points and 4.5 rebounds in 15.2 minutes per game his freshman season. By the end of the year, he started to pick up his stride and get some starts for Mike Krzyzewski’s squad, but he was decidedly disappointed to not have made an immediate impact for the team.
“I really just feel a lot of pride for him, like seeing his growth,” Elizabeth said. “Early on his freshman year, he wasn’t really playing a lot and he was very frustrated and sad. And I just told him, at the end of the day, you gotta get in the gym, put in the work, and that’s where your confidence comes.”
“Once he started doing that and understanding what that meant, that’s when you started to see him play better and better and better,” she added. “He took that momentum from freshman year into this year and this year has just been so fun to watch.”
In this standout sophomore season, Mark has averaged 11.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks in 23.8 minutes per contest. He’s started all 38 of Duke’s games on the year and was named a finalist for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
Of course, he’s been instrumental in helping the Blue Devils make a run to the Final Four in Coach K’s last year at the helm. And Elizabeth’s been watching it all from Turkey, where she was named EuroLeague Defensive Player of the Year for her outstanding play with Istanbul-based club Fenerbahçe.
“I’m always so proud watching,” Elizabeth said. “I wake up at three in the morning because I’m about to watch him play.”
And she’ll tune in Saturday night as Duke takes on its bitter rival, the North Carolina Tar Heels, in March Madness for the first time in the history of the NCAA tournament. The stakes have never been higher, a reality Elizabeth — who lost just one of her eight career matchups against UNC — knows well from her time with the Blue Devils.
But she doesn’t feel a need to remind Mark of the magnitude of the moment, both in terms of the rivalry and the looming retirement of college basketball’s all-time winningest coach, because “he knows and he gets it.”
“I talk about the general things and, as far as his game, just being aggressive, rebounding, communicating,” Elizabeth said. “Because at the end of the day, those are what win you games regardless of who you’re playing… So I try not to sound like another person saying the things that he already hears.”
If not for the fact that she currently playing overseas during the WNBA offseason and has her own Final Four — that of the EuroLeague variety — to compete in next weekend, the Washington Mystic “definitely would’ve flown back” to see Mark play in-person.
Alas, her alarm is set. The game tips at 8:49 PM ET — or 3:49 AM in Istanbul — on CBS.
“I don’t care — I’ll sleep later,” Elizabeth said. “It’s so important for him to know that, regardless, we’re gonna be watching and supporting him.”