MINNEAPOLIS – The stigma isn’t there yet, or perhaps it’s receded. Maybe it’s both, past and looming, but right now, Derrick Williams has a unique window.
Last season, Williams was one of three former No. 2 picks on Minnesota’s roster. It was he in 2011, Michael Beasley in 2008 and Darko Milicic in 2003. This was hardly the company a highly touted rookie wanted to enter the league grouped with: an uber-talented and underachieving forward whose career was already marred with allegations of substance abuse and personality issues and a once-hyped Serbian seemingly devoid of any passion for the game.
It wasn’t that their problems would automatically rub off on the rookie, that he’d start maniacally munching Skittles and shoving cash under his mattress. Beasley and Milicic weren’t Williams’ closest friends, and they had little impact upon his season. But it was a hard association to ignore from the outside. The Timberwolves had three of those second overall picks. The first two were looking more and more like busts – busts the team had acquired later, rather than chosen itself – but Williams didn’t have to be. Could he not be? We’re still waiting to see.
And then there was the added pressure of simply being a rookie. Pundits, GMs and coaches had deemed him the second-best player, the guy whom the team with the No. 2 pick was almost obligated to choose. He got attention and hype and the kind of expectations that are healthy for no 20-year-old, and then he lived up to little of it.
Lucky for Williams, the Timberwolves haven’t written him off. They know better. But this is the year he has to earn it.
It is minutes. This is the reputation that was foisted on him by his sheer placement in the draft. This is being able to contribute to his team and taking some kind of credit in its successes. With Kevin Love out for at least the first four weeks of the season, Williams has the best chance he could ask for.
It’s a different kind of pressure these days, no longer the push to keep up with Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Isaiah Thomas, Kenneth Faried and all the other members of Williams’ draft class whose rookie seasons outpaced his. Now, it’s a more manageable, less individual stress: not so much proving himself, but making a difference on a team that needs him.
“I think a lot of people are just trying to put the pressure on me because K-Love’s out or Ricky (Rubio is) hurt,” Williams said. “But I try not to put any pressure on myself.”
That might be the best way to go about it. In the past week, Williams finished with 18 points and two rebounds and then 13 and six in two preseason games. He wasn’t necessarily the star of either contest, but he contributed in a big way and, most important, established as great a measure of game-to-game consistency as he has in his year-long career. That will be key going forward, and Williams’ yo-yo performances of last season won’t earn him anything with coach Rick Adelman.
For his part, Adelman is beginning to allow himself to be pleased with Williams. Last season, it was a tough task, especially when the rookie would show a flash of everything he’s supposed to be and then skulk back into his shell for the next few games. Even this preseason, the forward has been a tease, opening training camp with a bang and then receding back to his former self. Of course it’s been disappointing, but at least Adelman has the right perspective. He’s been around long enough to know that this isn’t over, not yet.
“I think I learned a long time ago it doesn’t matter where the guy was drafted,” Adelman said. “People look at that second pick in the draft, and that puts a lot of pressure on him. There are some guys who are picked in the second round and are more ready to play. You never know when it’s going to happen.”
Adelman knows better than anyone how much the playing field narrows once draft night ends. Some of the best players he coached – Clyde Drexler, Tracy McGrady, Terry Porter, Vlade Divac – were picked outside the top five, some even outside the top 10, and went on to have incredibly successful careers.
“He has to realize that once you get drafted, you get in this league, there’s nothing given to you at that point,” Adelman said. “You are in the NBA. It doesn’t matter where you were drafted. You have to go out and make your way into the league. Given time, he’ll be fine. People want to see it right away. Sometimes it doesn’t happen right away.”
But it has to happen soon. Williams in his second year is in the best place he could ask for. The spotlight has shifted to Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal and company. They’re ones trying to earn the draft spots they were given in June, and the scrutiny is theirs for a season. Williams is old news, but he still has a season or two before the next stigma looms.
With players like Milicic and Beasley, it’s a fun exercise to look at who was drafted around them. Only LeBron James went before Milicic in 2003, and the players picked after him – Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade – are the stuff of All-Star Games and Olympic rosters. Beasley was picked just after Derrick Rose and before Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Roy Hibbert and Serge Ibaka in 2008. Years later, we look back at it and laugh. Beasley before Westbrook? Darko before Melo? Oh, how silly we once were.
It’s not like that yet with Williams. There’s not yet a need to point out who was picked after him or to toy with who might have been a better choice. They aren’t rookies anymore, but the roles and hierarchy of the class of 2011 are not yet solidified. They will be soon, sooner even than they should, and in that, Williams must feel some haste. But it’s not the pressure of last season, when he had 66 games to prove an impossible and arbitrary worth.
For Williams, this year matters. It matters for everything it’s not: his rookie season, a contract year, a cutoff point past which he becomes a bust. It matters because he’s still just a 21-year-old kid who could be entering his senior year of college in a world where teenagers aren’t pressured to become pros.
Derrick Williams has time, and in this in-between year, matters are entirely in his hands.