MINNEAPOLIS — Flip Saunders believes he’s found a solution for the Derrick Williams identity crisis.
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations inherited an enigma of a No. 2 overall pick in the underachieving, 6-foot-8 forward with no country. Stick him in the post, and the only way he sees the floor is if Kevin Love suffers a freak injury that costs him most of his season (that actually happened last year). Put him on the wing, and he struggles to create his own looks and keep stride with the NBA’s premier scorers (that happened occasionally, experimentally, two years ago).
Saunders’ musing: Why not try both?
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“I do believe that Derrick has an opportunity,” Saunders said Friday on KFAN 100.3 while taking questions from fans at the Minnesota State Fair. “He’s lost weight. He wants to come in a lot lighter to be able to play some small forward, also play some power forward as a stretch four.”
The latter has been Williams’ primary role since former Minnesota personnel chieftain David Kahn selected him second overall in 2011. But while boasting a solid 240-pound frame, he spent his rookie season watching Love reach a second consecutive All-Star Game then spent last season missing high-percentage shots and floundering in an expanded role — he started 56 games — forced upon him by injury.
Through two seasons, he’s shooting 42.3 percent from the floor, scoring 10.5 points per game and snaring 5.1 rebounds per game.
“Derrick hasn’t lived up to that second pick in the draft,” Saunders said. “Now, part of it’s his fault; you always have to take responsibility for yourself as a player. The biggest thing he has to do as an inside player: he misses a lot of easy shots. He plays small at the rim, and part of that is he doesn’t locate the rim. It’s almost like he shies away from some contact.”
Since Saunders was hired in May, talk of trading Williams to a team where he may better fit swirled. But the Timberwolves held on to him, offering a chance to increase his value by cracking the depth chart at both forward spots.
That will be a tall task with the re-signing of Chase Budinger, drafting of Shabazz Muhammad and free-agent signing of Corey Brewer. To share some small-forward minutes with that bunch, Williams likely needs to channel his sophomore-year-at-Arizona-self.
In leading the Wildcats to a 2011 Sweet 16 showing, Williams stretched the floor magnificently, connecting on 42 of his 74 3-point attempts (56.3 percent). He’s yet to establish such a groove from beyond the arc at the NBA level and is shooting 30.5 percent from 3 entering the final guaranteed year of his rookie contract.
Even when he’s playing the four, the Timberwolves hope Williams can develop his outside game. Placing Love at center, Williams at power forward and Budinger and Kevin Martin on the wings creates a potentially potent long-distance lineup that can build leads quickly, Saunders said.
“He gives us flexibility,” Saunders said. “All of a sudden, you’ve got four guys who can all knock down 3-point shots and really spread the floor.”
But to hang with NBA swing men, Williams’ quickness must improve. To that end, he’s focused on dropping weight this offseason.
According to Saunders, the team has to decide in October whether to exercise its option for the fourth year of Williams’ contract. The front-office general plans to meet with him and watch him work out in California this week, the first chance to prove Williams still offers this team some worth.