At 18, Jeffress’ maturity, humility set him apart to lead a new-look Panther team

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Clare Sheedy | Senior Staff Photographer

At just 18 years old, William Jeffress has shown maturity and personability that is unmatched by most teenagers — setting him up to lead a new-look Panther team.

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt men’s basketball head coach Jeff Capel called then-first-year forward William Jeffress into his office for a routine meeting. Once inside his coach’s office, the newcomer did something so simple yet so atypical of a 17-year-old — he asked his coach how he was doing.

“He comes into my office and the very first thing he says is, ‘Coach, before we get into anything, how are you doing? How are you holding up?’” Capel said. “And I was shocked. I don’t know when the last time I’ve been asked that. By anybody. Hell, my wife doesn’t even ask me that.”

This praise came after an early March victory over Wake Forest last season — arguably, Jeffress’ best game of the year. While Capel made sure the twenty or so media members on the Zoom call heard his praise for Jeffress the player, the third-year head coach quickly pivoted to how impressive the young forward was outside of the lines.

Actions like this — ones that seem to come as second nature to Jeffress — help paint the full picture of an incredibly thoughtful and layered teenager who just happens to play Division I Basketball.

Born in 2003 to a mother who earned a PHD from Yale and a father who spent his life playing and coaching basketball at various levels, Jeffress grew up in the northwestern Pennsylvania town of Erie. His father, William Jeffress Sr., tried to imprint his love of basketball onto all of his kids — but it only took hold in his son, William Jr.

“He tried to get my sisters to play basketball but one ended up playing tennis and one ended up playing volleyball,” Jeffress said. “It became like a father-son thing.”

As the younger William continued to climb up the ranks of youth basketball, the sport started to become a more central part of his life. As the game grew more important to Jeffress, so did the time and effort he put in. In seventh grade, Jeffress would begin to make a nearly two-hour trek from Erie to Cleveland after school to play basketball with higher-level competition.

“People actually thought I lived there, but I just drove the hour-forty-five after school,” Jeffress said. “I really just started to figure out that I could play this game at a high level and I really wanted to take it serious. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh man I can really do this.’”

After his playing days in Ohio, Jeffress was introduced to Team Durant, a youth development team where he began to embrace a role in which he would find himself up until his time at Pitt — being the youngest player on the court.

During just about every Pitt game broadcast last season, the instant the ball came into No. 24’s hands, the commentators were sure to mention the fact that Jeffress was the youngest player to play basketball in the ACC since 1982. While Jeffress is very aware of the label placed upon him, he sees it as a strength rather than a weakness — a sort of jump-start towards a higher level of competition.

“The younger you learn something, the better you can become at it,” Jeffress said. “You can use language as a prime example. I think they said the threshold was like once you pass twelve years old, it becomes way harder.”

While Jeffress allocated the vast majority of his free time to improving himself on the court, it didn’t come at the expense of his academic excellence. At McDowell High School, Jeffress was named a finalist for Mr. Basketball in the state of Pennsylvania, while also being a member of the National Honor Society and earning a 4.0 GPA.

“Trying to balance it out with your schoolwork and your social life — it becomes hard but at the same time, once you have priorities, things start to fall into place,” Jeffress said.

Jeffress’ ability to maintain his academic success while competing amongst some of the nation’s toughest competition is even more impressive when considering his circumstances. Whether that was playing high school basketball in elementary school or beginning his college career during a pandemic, adjusting to challenges has been a constant in his life.

This will be no different in Jeffress’ second year with the Panthers. Not only will the Petersen Events Center most likely have fans in the stands, but the team on the court will have a much different look than that of the 2020-21 squad. With time to reflect on his first season, he mentioned one key part of his game that he has pushed to amend — his work ethic. 

“I thought I was working hard and things like that, but I didn’t know what real work was,” Jeffress said.

Since last season ended, Jeffress put extensive work into becoming the best he can be. He has spent his offseason traveling and working out with other players who intend to play at the next level, gaining confidence in himself and his abilities along the way.

“Becoming more confident in the work that I put in to understand my game and trust my instincts — that is the most important part of my game,” Jeffress said.

Now, he will be one of the few familiar faces on a revamped Pitt team that saw five players leave via the transfer portal — consequently making the 18-year-old one of the more seasoned players on the roster. One of Pitt’s other returning players, senior guard Nike Sibande, expressed Jeffress’ value to the team and asserted that the Erie native will be a staple in the program’s future.

“William … he’s stepping up,” Sibande said. “He’s going to be a real huge piece here.”

After a productive offseason, Jeffress is very optimistic about what the team could bring to the table next year, adding that he has already connected with some of his new teammates.

“The new guys coming in — we have gelled very well,” Jeffress said. “Love the guys on the team that are around me right now.”

Just as he did with Capel, Jeffress’ care for his new teammates is something that has already made an impact with the newcomers. Establishing connections and getting to know the people that are his teammates and coaches has been something that has helped define him as both a person and a teammate. 

“It’s almost like any friendship or relationship that you have that you want to continue to build upon and cultivate,” Jeffress said. “You can’t do that without diving deeper than what’s on the surface.”

His ability to bond with those around him has caught the eye of many within the program and will undoubtedly serve him well as a leader with Pitt — a role that Jeffress feels he is ready and well-equipped to assume.

“I feel like I’ve always been a leader throughout my life no matter what team I’m on and I feel like I can step into that role for this team along with some of the other guys,” Jeffress said. “That can only elevate us and elevate me to where we think we can go.”

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