Some players drafted second overall in the past decade or so: Darko Milicic; Michael Beasley; Stromile Swift; Hasheem Thabeet. Marvin Williams: a perfectly fine player and all but is markedly less fine when one considers that he was drafted ahead of both Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Yes Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Alridge were second picks, but so was the unfortunate Jay Williams. (I suppose it depends on your perspective whether you consider experiencing a hellaciously awful motorcycle crash that ruins your career and nearly kills you, but does not kill you, fortunate or unfortunate.) Steve Francis was a second pick.
And so was our very own Derrick Williams. In the second pick pantheon Williams will surely find himself somewhere in the hazy middle between Darko and Durant. Better, I truly hope, than Mike Beasley. Better than Williams? As good as LaMarcus? Now it’s getting tricky.
Williams’ first season in the league was recognizable to anyone who keeps tabs on young talent in the NBA. It consisted of a handful of sobering, only-a-few-humans-alive-can-do-what-he-just-did kinds of plays, a handful truly wincingly awful plays and a large portion of stuff in the middle. Williams certainly doesn’t fall into the “insanely athletic/talented but has no idea what he’s doing category” but in the more even more tantalizing “insanely athletic/talented and almost (but not quite) knows what he’s doing” category. There are a lot of perfectly mediocre NBA players in that latter category.
Allow me to offer three archetypical Derrick Williams rookie-year plays. 1) Williams cuts to the hoop, receives a pass, elevates extremely high, crushes. Totally awesome. 2) Williams faces up his defender on the elbow. He drops a smooth, quick crossover or a simple head-and-shoulder fake and explodes past his man like the guy’s feet are nailed to the floor. He meets the secondary defender(s) in front of the rim. Suddenly, Williams’ athleticism and sense of purpose evaporate. Unable to gather himself or properly time his takeoff, he forces a meek, awkward shot into the teeth of the help. 3) Williams catches the ball very far from the basket, looks around with some discomfort and finally hoists a long, slightly awkward and by-now contested jumper that was clearly taken only because he had no idea what else to do.
Williams had his moments this year. 27 points on 12 true shot attempts against the Clippers (many of those shots at the very highest degree of difficulty) is both mind-boggling and also about as clear an outlier as you’ll ever see. In general, though, his production wasn’t at the level that you might hope for from a player of his talents. 14.8 points per 36 minutes; .499 true shooting rate; 26.8% from three; 28.7% from between 10 and 23 feet; 7.9 rebounds per 36 at a rate of 12.2%.
So there are two things that we ought to wonder about when it comes to Derrick Williams’ offensive game. The first is whether Williams can ever gain enough game awareness to be a consistent scorer. Will he learn to read defenses, to recognize his opportunities? Will he learn to see that help defender, to anticipate that defender’s actions and adjust his attack accordingly? Will he be able to improve his footwork so as to actually make use of his great strength, quickness and leaping ability at the rim? When thinking about these things, its useful to remember that Williams faced similar problems in his first year at Arizona. As a freshman, he seemed lost and tentative; by the end of his sophomore year, he had figured the college game out.
(It might also be soothing to recall that fellow second pick Kevin Durant struggled with these very same problems his rookie season. Don’t mean to suggest that Williams will ever be on Durant’s level, simply that those skills are things that can be learned.)
The second thing to wonder is whether Williams can ever be the shooter he was in college. Considering Williams’ strange, angular shooting motion, I think its reasonable to worry that his incredible shooting efficiency from his second season at Arizona (59.5% overall, 56.8% (!) on threes) was simply a statistical outlier, a prolonged run of unreasonably hot shooting. That would be a total bummer. That said, I do think that Williams’ struggles with awareness and decision-making affected his jump shot. Williams took more than his share of contested, off-the-dribble jumpers this year, shots he had essentially no business taking. And even when he was wide open he seemed tentative and uncomfortable, like he wasn’t completely certain he wanted to be doing what he was doing. I very much hope that with a little work on that stroke and with a full pre-season to find his place within Rick Adelman’s offense, we’ll see a better-looking and more effective jumper from Williams next season.
In many ways, Williams’ defense mirrored his offense. Particularly as the season progressed, he began to show signs of putting his strength and quickness to use in his man-to-man defense. But, like many rookies, his team defensive awareness and his ability to defend the myriad actions presented by NBA offenses left something to be desired. As a snapshot of this, according to mySynergy, Williams gave up over a point per possession when defending the pick-and-roll (both the roll man and the ballhandler). And he struggled in particular when guarding threes, which prevented him from getting minutes at what is probably his favored offensive position.
Which of course brings up the question lingering beneath every other question: is there even a place for Derrick Williams on this team? Can enough minutes be found for Williams to become the best player he can be? When everyone was healthy this season, Williams essentially served as Kevin Love’s backup at the four. Unless he finds a way to improve his perimeter defense and play the three, the Wolves will be hard pressed to carve out starter’s minutes for him, particularly if he ever begins to score as his talent suggests he might.