Derrick Williams: Make or Miss League

Zach Harper —  November 16, 2012 — 13 Comments

Derrick Williams driving to the basket… imagine that.

Is Derrick Williams a bad player who doesn’t belong on the Timberwolves?

The growing sentiment with an impatient fan base seems to be yes, he is. And that’s what we are right now; it’s an impatient fan base because the biological clock of Kevin Love’s potential early termination option is ticking like a time bomb. There is a presumed small window to get this team into the elite ranks of the Western Conference or we’ll be back at the first step again in a few years. Through impatience comes great desperation and understandably so. 

The concept of a draft bust often leaves the player with a stigma, and it’s a concept I’ve struggled with over the last couple of years. Before then, I was right with everybody — making fun of guys like Darko Milicic and Michael Olowokandi and Joe Alexander for not living up to the unmet expectations of justifying a high selection that they have no control over. When a draft pick is screwed up, we tend to get mad at the player. “How dare they let us down!” It’s an easy way to place blame, when in fact they had nothing to do with the process other than play college basketball, declare for the draft, and perform at team workouts for a couple of months.

After that, it was up to the team that drafted him. If Darko was the number 24 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, would anybody care that he didn’t pan out in the NBA? (We certainly know he wouldn’t care… BOOM!)

If the Wolves nabbed Derrick Williams with the 11th pick instead of the second pick in 2011, would we have had such high expectations for him? Some would have but I’d imagine the promise we made to ourselves about him would have been different. But finding the proper place for blame on a draft pick that isn’t even a calendar year into his playing career seems stupid to me.

Instead we should find out if Derrick is a bad player. And if he is a bad player, has he or will he improve?

Let’s look at whether or not Derrick is a bad player. Here are his numbers from his first 74 games in the NBA.

DerrickWilliamsNumbers

These are not great numbers; there’s no denying that. He’s an incredibly inefficient player, hasn’t been able to increase his shooting or scoring much even though he has a higher usage rate this year, and he simply can’t make shots. Does this make him a bad player? No. Does it mean he’s playing bad basketball? Sort of.

Looking at Derrick’s shooting percentages, he’s making just 32.4% of his shots and 33.3% of his 3-pointers so far this season. Think about that. Derrick Williams is shooting better from 3-point range this season than he is from 2-point range. That’s pretty astounding and makes you wonder what is going on with his shot right now. Is it broken or is it just misfiring? Also, what types of shots is he taking?

DDubChart1112

Derrick Williams’ shot chart for the 2011-12 season.

DDubShotChart1213

Derrick Williams’ shot chart for the 2012-13 season.

“I’m not worried about misses and makes like that,” Williams said after the Wolves’ loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. “I think if you play your game going off of misses and makes then it can be a long season.”

There is some definite logic to that type of reasoning. If he’s worried about whether or not he’s going to make a shot, he’s probably going to be too far in his own head to come out of a shooting slump. Williams shouldn’t be thinking when he shoots; it should just be a reaction to the situation ahead of him. And while there is so much red on those two charts that it looks like they have a rash, I think the area he’s taking his shots from year one to year two is what we need to look at.

Last season, Williams floated like that plastic bag in the creepy kid’s video in American Beauty. Everything was perimeter oriented for him. It seemed like Adelman and the fans were begging him to attack the basket because a guy with his athleticism and strength can be a wrecking ball inside. He took 3.0 shots per game at the rim last season and 3.8 shots per game in the restricted area during his rookie season. It was frustrating watching him settle for the jumper.

This year, his shot selection has improved quite a bit already. He’s taking 4.1 attempts at the rim and 5.2 attempts in the restricted area each game. It’s not a gigantic improvement but it shows progress. The weird thing is he’s just not finishing these extra attempts. He’s made just 44.8% of his shots at the rim and that number drops to 35.7% in the restricted area. These are remarkably low percentages for any NBA player, especially when you look at his size. Only four players last season had a worse percentage than the 44.8% he’s had at the rim. Those four players are Chauncey Billups, Derek Fisher during his Lakers’ stint, Jason Kidd, and Ben Uzoh.

You could look at his struggles at the rim as “ZOMG HE IZ THE SUCKZ” or you could look at it as a weird first eight games for him. And what he’s doing wrong right now is completely fixable.

“I think it’s just a little bit of concentration, maybe throw a little bit of pump fakes, a little bit of everything,” said Derrick Williams. “I think they’re timing my shot on the first go, so maybe just come to a jump-stop and finish.”

If he’s rushing his attempts, it’s easy to get him to slow down. Rick Adelman suggested he needs to throw his shoulder into defenders a bit more and finish through contact. Being more physical at the rim, hanging in the air because of his leaping ability, and finishing the play is a very real likelihood for Williams the rest of this season. And when guys are able to get more baskets at the rim, it typically opens up their jumper and puts them in a better rhythm.

He’s showing the improvement from last year to this year in his process and decision-making. He’s just not executing. If you’re asking me whether I think he’s more likely to figure it out with his new decision process or regress to his ways of last season, I’m going to put my money on him finishing the plays he’s trying to make this year.

“I’m not too worried about it because I know eventually I’ll start making them,” Williams confessed. “I just have to keep going, keep going to the basket and be aggressive. They’ll fall.”

As for the defensive side of the ball and his rebounding, this is where you see the greatest improvements. He’s improved his rebounding rate by 2% from 12.2% in his rookie year to 14.2% so far this season. He’s attacking the boards a lot more aggressively than we saw last season and he’s upped his per-36 average to 8.9 per game.

Defensively, he’s been spectacular. It’s an extremely small sample size but mySynergy Sports has Williams as the fourth best defensive player in the NBA so far this season. He’s had 49 defensive possessions in which the man he’s guarding has attempted a shot, attempted a free throw because of a foul, or turned the ball over. In those possessions, Williams is giving up just 0.53 points per possession and allowing 26.1% shooting. His opponents are actually shooting lower than he has!

“I think I’m doing a good job on defense. That was my focus this whole summer was be able to stop power forwards or whoever I have to guard — just trying to lock them down.”

And you can’t really say he’s had an easy go of it defensively either. He’s had games against David West, Andrea Bargnani, and Carlos Boozer. Regardless of how you feel about those players, they’re very good offensive guys. In eight games, Williams has already earned 0.3 of a defensive win share. That’s 1/4 of what he had in 66 games last season. Some people will retort with a question of why Dante Cunningham is finishing games in Kevin Love’s absence.

Dante Cunningham is a better defender and rebounder. And he’s making shots. It doesn’t mean Derrick isn’t defending and rebounding.

Overall, I think the problem is people see Kyrie Irving setting the league on fire in losses and wonder why Derrick can’t do the same thing. Other than the obvious points that the league is set up for point guards to put up numbers and Kyrie was the number one pick for a reason, I’m not sure what the rationale is in comparing the two. Wolves never had a chance at Irving, anyway.

People look at the number two pick and wonder why he isn’t awesome. Sometimes guys need time to build up their place in the league. It’s not always an automatic jump to stardom. Number two pick has expectations from fans; it doesn’t mean the team expects him to be great right away. The Wolves desperately need him to be a star to survive injuries right now. But other than that, he doesn’t have a set place on this team when everybody is healthy. He has to carve his own niche and before he does that, he has to figure out what his game is in the NBA.

People don’t want to wait on him, and that’s fine. But you can’t talk about how much you think he sucks and then wonder why the Wolves don’t trade him for a good shooting guard. If the guy sucks, how does he have the trade value to bring in what you want?

I’m willing to remain patient with him because it is a make or miss league. For some players it’s a sprint to becoming a contributing member in the NBA. For some guys, it’s more of a marathon. I see improvement in his game that I was hoping for. He’s rebounding, taking better shots, and playing fantastic defense early on. He’s just not making shots.

They will fall eventually. And I think they’ll fall in this uniform.

Zach Harper

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13 responses to Derrick Williams: Make or Miss League

  1. I want Derrick to improve enough to be a target for another GM when Kevin is back because at that point Derrick’s minutes will equal ZERO until more injuries occur. Coach does not trust Derrick at the 3. Enjoy your court time now, Derrick.

  2. Great article! Pretty much sums it up

  3. Great article, Zach. Was at the game tonight against the Warriors and D-Will had the breakout game to hopefully silence haters for the moment. I’m also in the “Let’s Be Patient” camp with number 7 and think this game exemplifies why we need to hold onto him. He had his best game of the season, and it certainly could have been better. He missed two dunks (one in which he was fouled lightly), a wide-open twelve footer, and surrendered points to David Lee despite giving an inspiring effort in his post defense. Despite the mentions above, he still put up an impressive 23pts on 50% shooting, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks.

    What I’ve noticed is that he needs to model his game after Kirilenko and realize that he is not an awesome isolation player. He excelled tonight when he took wide open spot up jumpers and was more successful attacking the basket from 18 feet than from 30 ft. His attempts at an isolation game led to forced floaters, bad leaning j’s, and a couple travels. This is what he needs to learn from AK-47: Work on moving without the ball, catch the ball at the elbow and unless you’re essentially unguarded, look to swing or hit a cutter rather than popping up a shot, and for goodness sake: BOX OUT.

    Derrick has all the tools to be a great player but let’s not forget he’s only 21 years old. He has tremendous athleticism, he has a good attitude (unlike two other No 2 overall picks we know well), and lest we forget what he did to Duke in the NCAA tournament— the guy has serious NBA range when he has confidence.

  4. I respectfully disagree with Zach when he seems to suggest guys aren’t ever to blame for where they get drafted and what they turn out to be, because they didn’t “ask” to be drafted high and receive great expectations. Well, actually they kind of did, which is why they entered the draft and aspired to make the NBA and tried to get picked as high as they could and hire agents to push them on GMs. Which is exactly what they should do, but to say they are Forrest Gump like unwitting buoys pulled along by the tides of drafting fate is not correct. Some prospects may be wrongly overrated by the team that picks them (Rafael Araujo), some may be wrongly underrated by the teams that passed them by (Paul Pierce), but some are properly rated, and Williams was seemingly one of them. No one including himself questioned he was a top three pick. When you are properly rated, there is still your end of the deal to carry out which is to work hard, improve and be a professional and make a natural progression in developing your skill set. True if you’re a basketball player, true if you’re a lawyer, true if you are a schoolteacher. If a player by all appearances could but doesn’t carry out his end of the bargain, then I think it is that player’s fault. Failure to live up to expectations is sometimes a function of mistaken expectations, but sometimes it is a function of well, failure.

    So in my view, guys like Beasley, Darko and Wes have to take some responsibility for not being as good as expected. The people who drafted them there weren’t horribly wrong about their ability, they were horribly wrong about their professionalism and heart. At least some of that is on the player, because presumably they didn’t say at combine interviews “I don’t give a crap, what you see is what you get, draft me, pay me and I’ll see you in October. Feel free to give me a long contract but just so you know I’ll be renting.”

    Having said that, jury is still entirely out on Derrick Williams, and there is not much to suggest he is a knucklehead like Beasley, an indifferent slug like Darko or whatever the hell was lacking in Wes’s soul. I think especially with a tad undersized big men, it takes them a while to figure out what adjustments they need to succeed in the NBA because what worked for them in college doesn’t translate to the NBA. Give him a little time to come into his own. Unless you can flip him for Josh Smith in which case cut him faster than Keith McCants.

  5. Zach did a great job of breaking down Derrick Williams’s role in this, but what is not spoken to is at the heart of the “problem”: the contingent of MN fans that are so eager to give up on Williams.
    Hearts trampled by years of mismanagement and actual busts, Wolves fans are quick to pull the trigger on giving up on a guy, especially one the Wolves drafted, because that is what they are used to and it is easier to just give in to misery than to struggle to remain steady with a critical and fair eye. In fact, I’d say doing the latter is an actual skill.
    Derick Williams is not a bust . . . yet. He is a project who has made some incremental strides while flashing the skills to be a stand out player. Right now he is a big tease. A Zach notes so well with the stats to cut through our MN perceptual bias, Williams had been an outstanding defender and an inefficient scorer so far this year. Just because MN fans WANT him to be the big time scorer that keeps this team afloat while we wait for the return of Love, Rubio, and even Pek, he just isn’t that guy right now. That doesn’t make him a bust, it just makes him Not The Guy We Want Him To Be. And the point isn’t who is to blame for that, the point is that he is young enough, talented enough, and seems to have the requisite work ethic to elicit some patience on the part of observers and fans. But that may be giving too much credit to observers and fans.
    The last point I’ll mention us that Derrick Williams is in a tough spot. Drafted to a team that arguably already had the best player in the league at Derrick’s strongest and most natural position, Williams had been hampered by not having a natural fit on the Wolves roster. Add on the mess of the strike-shortened season and the inevitable comparisons to Kyrie Irving (who is a player that is just at a different level) and you get a bitter pill for fans to swallow. And we shouldn’t expect much tolerance out of the great, unwashed masses of Wolves fans who will never be what I want then to be: patient and measured in their judgment.

  6. As one of those fans who was horribly frustrated after Wednesday’s loss to Charlotte, thanks for this. The defensive improvement is definitely a good sign that he’s figuring it out and won’t just be another Beasley.

  7. pagingstanleyroberts November 18, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    I think what should be expected of him is to play at a similar level as Enes Kanter or Klay Thompson: rotation player on a team with playoff aspirations who needs to prove he deserves minutes. Anything beyond that is unrealistic.

  8. We also need to consider what type of game Derrick Williams likes to play… He’s a run and gun, attack the basket type of player who occasionally can score from outside. With that being said, I believe the biggest variable in Derrick Williams play is Rubio. With Rubio on the floor Williams can do all the things he loves and get his points because of the great set up man Rubio is. Wait for his return and then lets see how well Williams plays.

  9. A little late to the party here, but had to respond to Ben’s nonsense. Derrick’s problems is the fans’ lack of confidence? Laughable. How do the fans control the outcome more than Derrick? The fact that fans want him to be a scorer is because that is the only skill that made him worthy of the #2 overall pick. He didn’t rebound well enough in college to project him as a banger, he didn’t handle the rock well enough to project him as a wing. His whole value in the NBA is dependent on him being an efficient scorer, and he’s not. These pre-draft analyses have largerly been proven correct. He’s lost his only elite skill in the pro’s and does nothing to help you win, even as a rotation player for 15 minutes a night.

    You think he is young, talented and dedicated. I thought he was going to be a bust that didn’t deserve to be drafted #2 overall prior to the draft. Ultimately, neither of these opinions by us fans are directly responsible for his development.

  10. I was watching some Rubio highlights from last year, and his college game against Duke, and it seems he thrives in the catch and shoot, cross over, and put back dunks. I have a feeling once we get Rubio back he can show some more of his true colors.

  11. Coming from a non-Wolves fan (Hawks fan, to be precise), do you feel that Derrick is being held to a traditional #2’s standard? I haven’t heard that much from around the league that indicates he is, but I’m also not in the Minnesota area or in the heads of Minnesota fans. I guess I thought that draft was considered a less talented draft, and that lots of the guys were works-in-progress. Derrick, to me, was one of those. Seems like he has a lot of upside, and Zach is right, if he’s getting to the rim more often, I’d say that’s a good start. Those will start falling.

    We had a similar scenario with the Hawks when Marvin Williams was drafted over CP3, Deron, etc. We all knew Marvin was well away from his potential, having never started while at UNC, but yet even as he progressed into a reasonably efficient player, all people could say is that he’s not Paul or Williams. Like Zach said, he didn’t choose himself there. Sometimes you draft on potential. Marvin is starting to have a reasonably good season in Utah, where he got a fresh start. Have a little patience with Derrick and I think it will pay off, but if all he ever hears is how someone taken below him is doing better (Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, Kenneth Faried) or that he’s a bust, then he’ll live in his head and play better, more efficient years with someone else.

  12. Liken D Williams to a guy from the past, Donyell Marshall. They have a ton of similarity. Marshall, too big for small forwards and too fast for power forwards, left college early for the 1994 NBA Draft. He was selected after his junior year at the University of Connecticut by the Wolves as the fourth overall pick. He was traded 40 games into his rookie season to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for power forward Tom Gugliotta, on February 18, 1995. Marshall was a dog in the first year here at Golden State under Nellie, I remember sitting at a game wondering why he was stuck ot the bench. But in the long run found a clear role and played great for us.

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