MINNEAPOLIS — Sometimes it’s easier not to listen.
Sometimes, the best decision is to ignore, to forget about opinions and conjecture. Sometimes, the only thing to do is to play basketball.
On Friday afternoon, Derrick Williams and Wes Johnson stood at center court in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ practice facility. They weren’t the tallest players present at minicamp, or even the most toned. But they stood apart, talking, watching, at ease.
In that rare instance, they were the players who belonged. They were the ones with the most stability, the most NBA experience, the highest ceilings. Some might say they shouldn’t have been there, among more than a dozen players who might never make the NBA. Some might say their very presence was an insult, but as tempting as that line of thought might be, that’s not how Williams and Johnson are looking at it.
Williams was the second overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft, Johnson the fourth the year before. Both seemed poised to be successful upon entering the league; both have been disappointments thus far. Each has been plagued with inconsistency and inflated expectations, and neither likely expected summer league to matter as much as it does this far into his career.
That’s where the ignoring comes in. It no longer matters what Williams and Johnson expected last year or two years ago, how good they were projected to be or how short they’ve fallen. What matter is now. What matters is basketball, and if summer league is the way to improve, then that’s where they’re going to be.
Johnson said that when he was first asked to come to play on the Wolves’ summer league team, he thought about it but quickly decided he’d get in some more playing time. It was his decision, yes, and many of the players selected before and after him two years ago have long eclipsed the need to join a squad. But for Johnson, this offseason is a time to assert himself, and he knows he needs to use every opportunity he can to showcase that he has indeed improved.
“I feel good,” Johnson said. “I’m back to just playing. I think just last season and the season before that, I was just caught up in a lot of stuff that I needed to worry about. Now I’m back to myself.”
Whatever that means, summer league will likely reveal the extent of Johnson’s improvements. He and Williams will be used in varying lineups and positions, assistant coach Terry Porter said, as the staff tinkers with rotations to see how players respond. Williams, who has lost 15 pounds since the end of the season and hopes to lose eight more, is getting more time at small forward, a spot where he might fit in next season.
Williams, too, knows the importance of this offseason, but more than that, he’s aware that it doesn’t have to be this way. He knows the questions and trade rumors are there only because of how he played and that it’s within his control to secure a more concrete spot on the Timberwolves’ roster. Both he and Johnson have learned to ignore trade rumors and even acquisitions — both play positions at which the team has brought or is interested in bringing in new players — and to think only about themselves.
“I’m pretty much just doing my own thing right now, trying to get my body in shape and be ready for summer league,” Williams said.
That kind of independent thought is the last thing a coach wants during the season, but right now, it’s the best thing for Williams and Johnson. This offseason isn’t about the team for them — that’s all left to owner Glen Taylor and president of basketball operations David Kahn. Instead, it’s about doing specific things to make them better basketball players. Forget being better teammates, forget even the notion of winning. This is about nothing more than Williams, Johnson and basketball.
That’s why it doesn’t matter that they’re surrounded by players as much as seven years older who’ve never played a minute in the NBA. It’s irrelevant. Summer league isn’t a punishment; it’s an opportunity, and when they tune out all the chatter, that’s so much easier to see.
“People are going to have a judgment no matter how good you play,” Williams said. “Look at LeBron this season. He had arguably one of the best seasons ever, and people still hated on him, things like that. No matter how good you do, there’s going to be somebody there that’s going to be talking.”
For Williams, that’s an important lesson. But sometimes, it’s impossible to silence the critics completely. Sometimes, the criticism also comes from within. At the core of every jab, speculation and trade discussion, there’s usually a kernel of truth.
“If I’d played a little bit better, I probably wouldn’t have been in those talks,” Williams admitted.