MINNEAPOLIS — When the Timberwolves drafted Derrick Williams second overall, the highest-ever pick in franchise history, in June 2011, he was, for a brief moment, the future of the team. All such high draft picks are, by virtue of the number assigned to them and the value it implies, if for no better reason.
But with the Timberwolves, that designation didn’t last long. Problem was, Minnesota already had a future. It had Kevin Love, at the very position Williams was slated to play, and it found out quickly as last season began that it also had Ricky Rubio. Williams was mediocre, inconsistent, at times seemingly lacking in motivation — all the things a rookie should not be, especially not a rookie of Williams’ supposed caliber. And so he faded into the periphery, already viewed as something as a bust after just 66 games, and when he returned in the fall of 2012, it was to prove himself.
The experiment at small forward wasn’t working out, even though Williams had slimmed down over the summer. That became readily apparent, and he certainly wasn’t going to win himself a starting job at power forward, at least not until Love’s first hand injury occurred. But even then, Williams failed to prove himself in the nine games he started without Love, and he was back without minutes quickly.
Now, though, another opportunity has presented itself, in the form of one re-shattered metacarpal on the hand of one Kevin Love. Now, with the heart of the season bearing down on the Timberwolves and their star out, yet again, Williams is still not the future. No, he skipped that step. Derrick Williams is now very much the Timberwolves’ present, whether or not he’s earned it. (He hasn’t.) Regardless, the Timberwolves have reached a critical point, with too few options and too few games remaining just to scrape by. And so Williams’ fate, however shaky, is intertwined with that of a team hoping to somehow claw its way back into a playoff spot.
“We have to compete,” coach Rick Adelman said after Saturday’s loss and the news of Love’s hand. “There’s no time. I just told them in the locker room: The games don’t stop. The league doesn’t stop for you. There’s nobody coming over the mountain for us.”
The Timberwolves are 15-15 after 30 games in a Western Conference that two years ago, the last 82-game season, took a minimum of 46 wins to make the playoffs. To reach that 46-36 mark, the Timberwolves will have to finish 31-21, hardly an astonishing mark, but one they’ve given no indication they’re capable of executing. And though there’s no official prognosis on Love’s hand, it’s safe to say he’ll be out until around the All-Star Game, perhaps 20 games. This playoff push has to start without him, and in his place, most likely, will be Williams. The Timberwolves must hope he’s ready. He must hope he’s ready. Because the implications of his play over the next month are going to say a lot as to the direction in which his career may turn.
Williams this season has already been through his share of ups and downs, though it appears lately that he’s on an upswing after spending extra time shooting with assistant coaches and at times Love. Williams arrives for every game earlier than the rest of his teammates, and he takes shots with Bill Bayno and Shawn Respert on the empty court. He’s been working on his mid-range game and taking the ball to the basket, he said, and the individualized attention seems to be doing him some good.
“I’m just out there getting shots up when nobody’s on the court,” Williams said. “I have the whole court to myself.”
“I’m just trying to knock down shots I know I can make.”
When Love made his surprise return on Nov. 21, Williams logged two consecutive games in which he did not play, beginning a stretch in which he was benched for four of nine games. His minutes were inconsistent — 22 one night, five the next, with a few 10-minute outings and a DNP mixed in for flavor — and it seemed impossible for him to find any sort of rhythm. But in the last six games, Williams hasn’t once played fewer than 11 minutes, and he’s finally achieved a level of consistency, averaging 9.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in just under 16 minutes a game. Those numbers translate to 21.4 points per 36 minutes, a respectable mark if Williams can sustain it, and he’s been shooting 47.4 percent over the period, 53.8 percent from three-point range.
That sounds like a bundle of good news at a time when the Timberwolves need it most at Williams’ position, even if the sample size is small. After all, as things stand with Ricky Rubio returning and Love out, the team’s biggest need is a forward who could play center in a small lineup — which sounds a whole lot like Derrick Williams. But even now, with the minutes available, they’ve been hard to come by; with Love out on Saturday, Williams did not play significant time until the fourth quarter while Dante Cunningham got the start at power forward and logged 42 minutes. (It was the second-most Cunningham had ever played in a regulation-length game in his career.)
At some point, though, Williams will get his chance in the Timberwolves’ latest injury episode. He’ll have to. No trade is imminent, and no one the Timberwolves might bring in on a 10-day contract will be able to fill Love’s void better than Williams, even with his disappointing inconsistency. The moment is now, and a decimated roster will force Adelman’s hand if he’s hesitant. I can’t imagine any circumstance in which Williams’ minutes don’t increase, and with his shots falling of late, that won’t necessarily be a bad thing.
After Saturday’s game, Williams talked about his outlook, his mentality, his confidence — the same things he always talks about when his frustrating situation gets a breath of life. But one comment, in particular, stood out as slightly more interesting. “Just going up and trying to dunk it,” he said, “if I miss, I miss, but I’m just attacking the basket hard.”
For a long time, it’s looked like Williams has been playing scared. Scared because he’s messed up, because his flubbed dunks have been some of the most pitifully laugh-inducing moments of the Timberwolves’ season. Scared to get to the basket, scared to drive, so scared, in fact, that tiny J.J. Barea has often been better at barreling into the paint than the 6-8 Williams. Well, there’s no time to play scared anymore, and no benefit to it, and maybe Williams has realized as much.
So now is the time. Derrick Williams is a Timberwolf until further notice, and he and his team have bigger things to terrify them than an insignificant missed dunk or two. They have a playoff berth that could easily fall out of their grasp, a top prospect who’s thus far been a player who can’t compose himself with big minutes and the all-too-real worry that this might be another lost season.
Williams’ star has faded to the point that he’s almost an afterthought, an added bonus when he plays well. Now, he has to be a real factor, and if he is, people will notice. The team will notice, and the team will be swayed, and in spite of so many signs saying no, he can’t do it, perhaps this underachieving prospect on this underdog team might be the key to the Timberwolves asserting themselves down the stretch.