MINNEAPOLIS – Some nights, Derrick Williams is a barb.
Other nights, he’s promise. Still others, he’s invisible. Invariably, with a loss, he’s mentioned for failing to do this or that when, really, the rest of the team often fails in equal measure. Perhaps it stands out that much more because of who he is: no. 2 draft pick, tantalizingly talented, still unproven Derrick Williams.
He’s just too easy a target.
After Wednesday night’s 89-87 loss, Rick Adelman brought up a valid point. “It seems like everybody wants to dwell on him,” the coach said of Williams. They want to twist his performances to afford them more responsibility, and too often more blame.
And then on Friday, after another loss, this one 106-98 to the Warriors, Williams was an afterthought. He’d put up 23 points, the third-highest total of his young career, with seven rebounds to boot. But ask what people remember about his night, and too many will say that missed dunk to begin the game. Too many will take 23 points for granted, because he was the no. 2 pick, after all. The no. 2 pick. Let me make that clear: the no. 2 pick.
With perceptions of Derrick Williams, there can be a certain dose of suspended reality, of expectations set and based on an imposed value rather than a displayed norm. When the Timberwolves lose and he plays poorly, it’s Derrick, Derrick, Derrick, even if the team shoots terribly from the free throw line and plays woeful transition defense, which was the case Wednesday. When they lose and he plays well, though, suddenly rational thought returns. It was terrible rebounding Friday (a 50-34 margin) an even worse performance in the paint, where the Warriors outscored the Timberwolves 58-22. It was all Williams, Andrei Kirilenko (18 points) and Alexey Shved (22 points), and the trio was not quite enough.
So on this night that could have been a breakout, there was barely a mention of the second-year forward, even as he led a team that’s been in dire need of a scorer. Maybe that’s wrong. Or maybe we’ve seen this before, too many times, a tantalizing performance that’s really the most beguiling of teases. One night, even after a solid preseason and a three double-digit scoring performances, isn’t enough to believe in Williams, not yet, and rightfully so. He’s broken everyone’s hearts too many times before, albeit without trying.
To watch Williams for the first quarter of a game is to know what you’re going to get. If he’s slow, he’s staying slow. If he’s hot, he should remain hot, though maybe not quite at that initial clip. There are no surprises here, not from the 21-year-old who’s as earnest in person as he is on the court.
On Friday, the Timberwolves got what they’ve been asking Williams for: early energy. That’s why he starts: to pile up points early, they hope, and get the momentum going. What was most impressive, though, about his performance against the Warriors was that he started 0-for-2 before going on his run, which culminated in 13 first-quarter points. That’s unlike Williams, who too often lets a couple of early bad shots color his night.
“I just think it’s just a confidence thing,” Williams said. “Tonight, I just decided, you know, I’m just going to shoot it, man, and whether I make it or miss, I’m not going to second-guess myself. That’s what I’ve been doing the last few games, and they started to fall.”
He makes it sound so far from his control, which can be frustrating to hear. Of course basketball is a game of runs and streaks, but Williams has a way of twisting complicity without trying. There’s no doubt he works hard, that he puts up the shots in practice and listens to coaches. But sometimes, he makes it sound too much like he’s just waiting on his game to come to him. In that lies the frustration of Derrick Williams.
But on Friday, he didn’t wait. On Friday, he tried desperately to get to the basket and failed, and so he quickly adapted. He moved to his jumper, to shots from 15 feet out – maybe not what he’s been practicing, but what was working. He seems to be learning to think on his feet, in the moment, and that too marks a step for him.
At halftime, Alexey Shved approached Williams to ask about why calls weren’t going his way. Williams explained that he can’t expect the calls, that he shouldn’t aggressively pursue them, and in telling the story postgame, he exuded a level of comfort and even pride that’s so rare from him. He likes that he has a year of experience behind him, that someone might think to come to him for advice, rather than the other way around. It wasn’t much, just a quick conversation, but to see Williams that relaxed is to hope that this longer-than-expected acclimation might be finally wrapping up, or at least settling.
A month ago, when Kevin Love broke his hand and Williams became the de facto starter in his place, it was touted as the opportunity of a lifetime. Like everything else with the forward, there was an air of hyperbole, and like he usually has, he hasn’t lived up to the blustering hype. This was supposed to be the year when expectations abated, and yet they were thrown back at him with the force of a Nikola Pekovic rebound, smack in the gut. But in some strange way, as the injuries have piled up, the pressure has eased. Anything positive is overachieving for this team, and to some extent for Williams, too. It’s easier to see the little things that are improvements, even the infinitesimal.
Of that, Williams should take advantage. He should figure out a way to not miss those oh-so-easy dunks, or at least be smart enough to shy away from such moves. It’s as simple as playing to his strengths, maybe not pushing any further when the ground right now is already so shaky. Anything to give himself some sort of positive PR campaign, when he’s this much more noticeable.
Williams could be doing a lot more with this opportunity, no doubt. And if we’ve learned anything from this stretch, or from Friday night in particular, it’s that he can’t carry this team. But maybe the Derrick Williams rollercoaster needs to slow down. Maybe his evaluations need to stop jumping from improving to terrible to improving again on an almost nightly basis. Maybe we need to let him be the eighth- or ninth-best player on the team, to put him in the hole he’s dug and expect him to climb out of it like anyone else, rather than bounce right out when he finally takes his magical no. 2 draft pick potion.
That’s not how this works. And we need to stop dwelling.
“I’d love to dwell on him if he’s doing things well,” Adelman said Wednesday. “But, you know, he’s just one of the guys.”
Adelman’s got it right. He’s one of the guys, one of many. It might not be glamorous, or even on par to his potential. But right now, that’s the reality.