Timberwolves F Derrick Williams has taken on an admirable attitude despite the lack of a steady role.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
MINNEAPOLIS – A year ago,
Derrick Williams was the only player on Rick Adelman's team to play in all 66 games. He prided himself on that, even into this preseason. No matter how much of his game was lacking, he was there, which was more than so many of his teammates could have said.
Now, though, the streak is gone, though hardly through his volition, not even through an injury. On four nights so far this season, Williams has been benched, and his point of pride is no more.
No matter how much he might want to shrug it all off, the second-year forward is at a crossroads.
Here, not even 100 games into his NBA career and with his playing time a scarce commodity, the 2011 No. 2 overall pick must decide. Is he going to stay the course and continue to be upbeat about the situation he's been dealt, one propped up by assurances and shrugs? Or is it finally going to make him mad? Will there be a tipping point, another DNP after a 20-point performance? Another five minutes of garbage time?
For now, Williams has chosen the high road. He's chosen to believe that no overtures have been made to trade him, at least not this year. He's chosen to stay after practice, engaged in a shooting contest with fellow DNP Lou Amundson. He's chosen, he said, not to demand a trade or discuss such a thing. He's chosen not even to act as if he would rather be somewhere else.
Now, he must also choose to focus on what remains in his control.
Reality has been bitter, almost from the minute he entered the league, beginning with the lockout. Once Williams morphed from prospect to pick, his innocence had no place. Neither did his seeming propensity to be just a shade too passive. From Day 1, it's been a fight for minutes and a battle for consistency, and neither is about to let up.
Reality is this: Williams is not playing, not as much as he would like, not even at all, some nights. He has only practices to make his case, and practices can be hard to come by. And, most of all, there's a bigger issue, one so often alluded to but never quite spelled out as well as Andrei Kirilenko did on Tuesday:
"Sometimes it's tough," Kirilenko said. "Sometimes it's tough to find a position, especially playing behind Kevin. It's pretty tough to find a rhythm."
Especially behind Kevin – there's no getting away from it. Williams was drafted into an untenable position, behind a franchise player who'd go 40 minutes a night if he had his druthers. The solutions – playing small forward, making the most of his chance to start early this season – have not worked, and that leaves Williams on the court with Amundson, shooting ball after ball after ball in his best possible venue to find that elusive rhythm.
But kudos to him for remaining even-keeled, even strong, for embracing Adelman's mantra that one's draft pick number carries little weight. Kudos to him for smiling as he talks about trade rumors and going so far as to say the team doesn't owe him an explanation. He's handled this the right way, without complaining or bottling his emotions up inside of him. He's sought out teammates for advice -- Josh Howard, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic in particular -- and they've offered their wisdom and encouragement.
Howard has told him how to handle the trade rumors, to separate the fact that he's putting forth so much effort from the sense that his team might not want him. Even though "those rumors are about 98 percent not true," Howard says, they still get to you. And if he were to be traded, Howard has told him, he will have to take it in stride. He can't get upset. That's the bottom line.
From Love, he's learned the value of practice. It might not be what he wants to hear from the man whose minutes he covets, but there's no better person to teach him about motivation and effort.
"He's not pouting, though, like I probably would have, or (getting) angry about it," Love said. "I think he's been taking it out, getting extra work in, a lot like me, and I've talked to him about not the ways to work hard, because I believe he knows how to, but just how to do it, and how to go about it … as a professional and in the right way. He's been doing all the right things."
More than anything, Williams has been patient. He's taken every 10-minute stint as 10 minutes to prove himself, and though it hasn't always worked out that way and there have been mistakes aplenty, his numbers are up from last season. He's waiting and hoping each night for minutes in any amount or form. He's practicing like there's a starting job at stake, and through it all, he's adopted something of an out phrase, a mantra.
I'm not the coach. I'm not the coach. I'm not the coach. It's the equivalent of reminding himself over and over how little control he has, and while it might sound like an excuse or a deflection, Williams needs it. There's another thing he thinks, too, that's equally as comforting: He's not the only one in this spot. When asked if it would be easier to know when his minutes would come, Williams laughed.
"Yeah, I think it would be," he said. "It would be easier if it was like that. I think it would be easier if it was like that for everybody."
He isn't the only one riding the bench, the only one fighting for playing time. But because he's Derrick Williams, because he's making the money he's making at the age he is, it matters. Because he could be trade bait, it matters even more.
And so he'll shrug and smile and say that he and his agent haven't discussed any of this trade business. He'll show up the next day and keep at it. He'll hope he's improving and, more important, that someone notices. He'll embrace that he's become lodged in this second tier, become the kind of player who's all set for an opportunity if there's an injury, who's discussed as a possibility at an unnatural position in a smaller lineup.
That's not the player anyone expected Williams to be. That's maybe not even the player he has it in him to become. He has to wonder whether the waiting is worth it, whether if given consistent minutes, he could be something else, something more. And in Minnesota, it may be hard to know the answer.
But Adelman has his reasons, and it's hard to second-guess his decision to limit Williams based on who he's putting out there. Kirilenko, Love – those are the guys who've earned their starting spots 100 times over. Williams knows that, too, and no matter how frustrating this all might be, he has to trust that something he does will tip the scale in his favor.
"He has to be ready," Adelman said. "I think he's learned that."