Maybe it’s because Derrick Williams is the highest draft pick in Timberwolves history. Maybe it’s because he makes $4.8 million this year, or because he so looks the part of the NBA star. Maybe it’s because of all the boneheaded, silly things he does in the moments when boneheaded, silly things are the last thing his team needs.
Or maybe it’s not rational, this spotlight that shines so brightly on a player who has so far done a passable job for a team that’s been mediocre throughout most of his young career. He’s subject to the level of scrutiny of a star and the condemnation of a bust, and to make any attempt to figure out Williams right now is utterly exhausting and perhaps even futile.
By the numbers, Williams doesn’t look so bad. His rookie season brought averages of 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds, this one 10.3 points and 5.1 rebounds. There’s improvement there, in the measures of quantity. But in quality, not quite; last year, Williams shot 41.2 percent from the field, this season, 37.5 percent. And then there’s the metric that shows he’s started nine of the 10 games in which he’s played this seasno; the problem is that it doesn’t capture the two games in which he was unceremoniously benched throughout.
But most of all, these numbers fall short because they fail to capture the ups and downs, the painful mistakes and the moments of pure beauty. They are absent the emotion of criticism and unmet expectations that have colored Williams’s career and have likely been the bane of his existence as a pro.
Here’s the past six months in a nutshell for the Timberwolves’ forward: Talk about weight loss over the summer. Go to summer league in Las Vegas with new, slimmer physique. Play decently. Get to the line about a zillion times, make significantly less than a zillion of those free throw attempts. Gain a bit of weight back on purpose. Arrive at fall camp. Get raved about by coach Rick Adelman on the first day of practice in Mankato. Make everyone believe, for at least a day or two, that there was a renewed focus, or something like that. Have a decent preseason, nothing much to talk about on either end of the spectrum from terrible to magnificent. Become a starter by default for the beginning of the season when Kevin Love gets injured. Talk of opportunity, perhaps the biggest of your young career. See limited minutes with Dante Cunningham playing well off the bench but continue to start. Score 23 points against Golden State on Nov. 16. Be benched for the next two games. Play in Golden State eight days later and provide an immediate spark off the bench, scoring 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting.
Caught up? Me neither.
So now we wait and wonder. In a rational world, or at least a world without Kevin Love, you’d think Williams would be rewarded for 10 points in 10 minutes. You’d think. But you’d also think that Williams wouldn’t miss what seemed like 10 dunks in two games (in reality it was about four). You’d think he’d learn to get to the basket eventually, that he’d have achieved some level of consistency.
Not Kevin Love consistency. Not even Nikola Pekovic consistency. Just some level of production in which a line graph of his scoring doesn’t look like the EKG of a patient in acute cardiac distress. That would be nice, but it’s yet to happen, and as much as you have to blame Williams, the complicity isn’t all his, at least not this season.
Adelman is known as a player’s coach, one who allows men to control their destinies. But in the case of Williams, the argument that he’s been able to shape his young career in this Timberwolves’ system falls short. This is no knock on Adelman or his decisions – Williams has not done too much to convince the coach he deserves big minutes – but when Williams is benched for two games, or even for two quarters, it’s hard to truly believe that he’s being put in the kind of situation in which a young player might flourish.
After that first game against Golden State, I wrote a bit about the Williams situation. I tried to draw some conclusions, both about the level of play of which the forward is capable and the caution that’s necessary in any assessment of him. But now, three games later, I’m finished. I’m tired of drawing conclusions about Williams, of even pretending to know what comes next. Google his name, and the first news stories that will come up are trade scenarios. I believe in any of those trades – or all of the hundreds of other options not yet explored – as much as I believe that Williams will go out and put up a 30-15-7 line on Tuesday. That is, any of it could happen, or it could be the complete opposite, and I wouldn’t be surprised.
Go back and look again at the Williams timeline from this summer to now. That’s why I’m finished with assigning any kind of pattern to what Williams does or inferring any kind of meaning to his output or even his playing time. It seems like we’re all wasting a whole lot of energy on a player who the Timberwolves could go on without, who was drafted into a far from ideal situation as the backup to a player who barely needs a backup, and maybe we should chill. At this point, what Williams does well seems like it should be a bonus, at least until he plays himself to a point where success is expected.
What’s done is done. Derrick Williams is a Timberwolf until he’s traded or his contract is up. The team has won with him contributing little. It’s lost with him contributing a lot. I’ll win when he’s on and lose when he’s off, too, and I just can’t imagine that it this point there will be any strong correlation between Williams’ success and the Timberwolves’.
It’s time to stop counting on Williams. Time to stop expecting things from him. It doesn’t mean he’s a bad player, or even a washed-up prospect. It doesn’t mean he’s a terrible person or doing this on purpose or not trying his very hardest to be all the things that everyone around him wants him so much to be. It’s just that he’s not there yet, and that’s a shame, and if the Timberwolves want to do something about it, to trade him or bench him or play him consistently and see where it all ends up – well, the ball is in their court.