MINNEAPOLIS — Before Wednesday, Derrick Williams had entered the Target Center visitors’ locker room on only one occasion.
That was in 2011, for some promotional materials featuring the Timberwolves’ newest, promising piece of the near future — the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Less than a rookie contract’s worth of time later, Williams was back in that cramped corner of Minnesota’s professional basketball headquarters sporting an asphalt-gray Sacramento Kings t-shirt and flip flops. It was a strange sensation, he said.
"I wasn’t too familiar with that area," Williams said.
But while there may have been some awkward moments Wednesday in the forward’s first Twin Cities return since being traded Nov. 26 to the Kings, Williams’ overall comfort level has skyrocketed.
An elephant-sized lack of fit here caused Minnesota to ship the Arizona product west in a straight-up exchange for defensive specialist Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. For the Timberwolves, it represented the latest of several high draft picks that simply didn’t work out.
But for Williams, it meant a fresh start on a rebuilding team. No more trade rumors, less uncertainty about playing time, fewer questions regarding how he meshes with a system.
"He’s been terrific," first-year Sacramento coach Mike Malone said. "He’s making the most of this new opportunity."
Malone’s less rigid offensive philosophy has allowed Williams to play both forward positions and even some shooting guard. Using him as a flex proved problematic in Minnesota, though, as coach Rick Adelman tried him at the three and four spots to little avail.
In two-plus years with the Timberwolves, Williams averaged 10.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 22.6 minutes per game. His best action came last season while starting power forward Kevin Love was out with a hand injury.
But with Love back in the mix and playing perhaps the best hoops of his career, there’s a lot more room for Williams in Sacramento than Minneapolis. He’s even started seven times.
"He’s kind of doing what he did for us last year," Adelman said. "He’s doing fine. It’s tough when you come off the bench . . . He’s just got to fit in."
That’s been a challenge since the Kings traded for Rudy Gay, who displaced Williams in the starting lineup. In a Sacramento uniform, Williams averages 9.5 points on 49.1 percent shooting and 3.8 rebounds per game.
Not astounding numbers. But so far, this new situation just feels right, Williams said.
"I think it fits my style of play a little bit more," said Williams, speaking freely and mildly enthusiastically with reporters he grew used to dodging during his trade-talk-infested Minnesota tenure. "I kind of just feel a little bit more freer out there on the court, because I learn from mistakes. I think with a young player like myself as well as a first-year head coach, you’re gonna have some ups and downs on both sides. I think we’re all learning together."
The man the Timberwolves got in return, meanwhile, is still in an adjustment period of his own. In addition to seeing his minutes decreased with the return of Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger from injuries, Mbah a Moute is still living in a hotel while he tries to find living space in the cities.
That’s not an easy task during the winter. Neither is battling a groin injury while trying to find a place in what’s a deep and varied rotation.
"Slowly, I’m finding my way, trying to settle down here," said Mbah a Moute, who’s tallied four points and 3.1 rebounds per game in 17 outings for Minnesota. "Hopefully it continues to progress that way."
To start, Mbah a Moute was a primary bench option at either small or power forward when starting stopper Corey Brewer took a breather. But Budinger’s return to the lineup gives the bench some well-needed offensive firepower, so Adelman’s placed him above Mbah a Moute in the hierarchy.
In order to see his time increased, Mbah a Moute must hit more open shots, Adelman said.
"There are too many guys at one spot to play them all," Adelman said. "It’s probably going to be spot minutes, maybe when someone’s got it going on the other team you put (Mbah a Moute) in there to defend him. But there’s not much you can do. They don’t expand the game to 60 minutes, so I can’t really change much. I play who I think is right."
When Love was healthy, Williams rarely fit that bill — especially this season. He dressed and didn’t see the floor in four games and averaged just 14.7 minutes played per game.
"Rick Adelman is a Hall of Fame coach who I have a tremendous amount of respect for, but with Derrick before we got Rudy, he was starting for us," Adelman said. "We just let him play, and we wanted him to use his athleticism."
With the failed experiment involving him firmly behind him, Williams called his time with the franchise that drafted him "a learning experience, whether it was good or bad.
"There was a lot of ups and downs," Williams said, "but you learn from it."