The Minnesota Timberwolves have been waiting on the emergence of Derrick Williams after drafting him second overall; the decision to extend his contract through the 2014-15 season means they’ll wait even longer before defining him. Is he a baller or bust?
In his final season playing at the University of Arizona, Williams used his larger, bulkier, 6’8″ frame to his advantage by dragging bigger and slower 4s and 5s away from the basket, creating space away from the hoop. From there he became reliant on athleticism and shooting ability to either drive past the defender or firing away a 3-point shot ( he shot 56 percent from long-distance during his final season). When facing smaller, quicker defenders, Williams muscled his way inside for an easy layup or dunk. Regardless of how it got done, the scoring was efficient. Williams averaged 16 possessions per game his final season at Arizona, scoring 1.16 points per possession (ppp) — second among his draft class and the 1.3 ppp scored in isolation opportunities ranked highest in college basketball. Since all of this was done playing center, he’s an ideal NBA power forward, right?
I believe Williams is a victim of unrealistic expectations. The 2011 draft class has been abysmal; only Kyrie Irving and Chandler Parsons have been able to create identities since arriving in the league. Drafting a player with a certain selection doesn’t obligate that player to perform at a certain level — there’s more to it than that. Keep in mind this franchise once drafted Ricky Rubio with the fifth overall pick and Jonny Flynn at No. 6 in the same draft. However his performance at the college level, most notably in a Sweet 16 victory against Duke, stirred up reason to believe Williams would become an NBA star. Though unlikely he’ll reach superstar status, Williams is a pivotal piece to a Timberwolves run at the postseason.
Williams started 56 games at power forward last season. Kevin Love, who played 18 games, missed most of the year and there was no way of replacing, or even coming come close to producing, Love-like numbers. However, it provided opportunity for players to step up — cue Williams’ theme music. Here’s how he did last season compared to his rookie year.
With the exemption of a minute difference in 2-point field goal percentage, there was improvement in every listed category, though it was apparent he’s not made to play the power forward spot. However, Williams averaged 15.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and shot 34 percent from long distance in final 33 games of the season — he’s just not Love. This year his opportunity will come at small forward because of the injury to Chase Budinger, who remains inactive until further notice.
Williams did start at the 3 in Sunday’s preseason game against the Boston Celtics. His stat line read five points, seven rebounds and two assists in 20 minutes and the Wolves defeated the Celtics 104-89.
Wednesday night, the Timberwolves face the Philadelphia 76ers, another dreadful opponent. It’ll be interesting to see if Rick Adelman chooses to start Corey Brewer or Williams at the small forward and for how long each will play.
Because of Brewer’s continuity in the league he’ll be the starter in most games until Budinger returns, whenever that may be. Brewer’s presence is most important on the defensive end because he’s limited offensively; his two strengths are sneaking away and scoring in transition and shooting the corner 3. Williams shoots better than Brewer percentage-wise behind the arc and from the field. Rick Adelman doesn’t like tinkering around with his lineup, but if there’s a matchup that favors an offensive player or someone Williams can handle on defense, he could potentially start at the 3.
The problem lies in trying to determine his position — is he a 4 or a 3? Until Shabazz Muhammad shows he’s capable of producing and playing significant minutes, which won’t likely be this season, Williams and Brewer must hold down the fort at small forward.When Budinger returns, why not embrace some versatility? The league is slowly getting smaller, gearing up with “3 and D” players who can shoot well from long-range and defend a prolific scoring option on the other end. If Williams steps up to the task and scores 15 to 20 points per game while showing he can defend and continue to rebound, having a solid, flexible player that can jump from the 3 and 4 slots isn’t a bad thing.
“So it helps, the security. You’re guaranteed at least one more year in the NBA, you know? And, as long as you have that, I think everything is good.” — Williams discussing his extension.
If Williams is unable to prove his worth in Adelman’s system in the opening months of the season, he’ll be trade bait and Flip Saunders and the Wolves front office will be listening intently to any and all inquiries on the third-year forward. For now, Williams is happy to be in Minnesota — maybe some confidence and experience is all he needed to realize what it takes to produce on an NBA level.