Derrick Williams: growing, not grown

Benjamin Polk —  January 15, 2013 — 16 Comments

As observers of the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of our favorite idle activities is wondering about Derrick Williams. There are a lot of reasons for this, but principle among them is a) the fact that, after he devoured everybody during his sophomore year of college, the Wolves made him the second pick in the draft and b) the fact that he is frighteningly athletic and talented but has yet to come anywhere close to living up to either his potential or his draft position.

The combination of those two facts tend to distort our perception of Williams’ performance. To us, Derrick Williams may always be “extremely talented/second pick” rather than simply “young player learning the game.” Incidentally, Rick Adelman, who has been around too long to be unduly impressed by either high draft position or exceptional, but unrealized talent, clearly views Williams through that latter lens. More than once, he has seemed mildly perplexed by the fuss that we all make over Williams. To Adelman, D-Will is just another gifted young guy who may or may not become good enough to stick.

Perhaps more importantly, Adelman likely also views Williams through the lens of his fit within a particular offensive philosophy and team structure. And so, when Adelman looks at Williams, he probably sees: a poor ball-handler and passer; a player with intermittent defensive effort; a guy who guards the same position as two better, more consistent players. (Again, being picked second in the draft adds no bloom to that particular rose.)

All of this has been true of Williams, which we have documented rather exhaustively. To quickly recap the critique: He possesses a monstrous first step and incredible leaping ability, but his footwork, ballhandling, vision and feel are limited enough to create problems for him at the basket.  Once he begins a move, he almost never passes (there’s that limited vision again). His shot selection can be cringeworthy and his shot looks awkward and rushed. Then there’s the energy/effort thing and the position thing, as referred to above.

Good, that’s out of the way. Now we can talk about the fact that, very gradually, things have been getting better. Certain skills–ballhandling, shooting form, game feel–can take years of diligent work to develop. But effort and shot selection are things that a player can improve in the short term. And, to his credit, Williams has done just that. His defensive energy and focus have improved notably since the beginning of the year. He has been running the floor. He has been hitting the boards with a consistent fire that makes use of his incredible athleticism. (His rebound rate is up nearly a percentage point from last season.) He has replaced many of those contested, off-the-dribble jumpers with clean, rhythmic spot-ups. And his three-point shooting has improved accordingly. He hit just 26.8% of his threes last year; he’s hit 37.5% since the beginning of December.

Williams’ ballhandling, footwork and feel around the basket still leave quite a bit to be desired. And these skills–essentially, his ability to create good shots for himself at the basket–are the real difference between Williams being an effective role player and a consistent, dynamic scorer.  Even here, though, there have been tiny signs of improvement. On a number of recent occasions, Williams has shown newfound balance and vision in attacking the basket.

On the first, on Friday in New Orleans, he set up his defender with a hard crab dribble to the middle of the floor before using his notorious spin dribble to evade the help defender and take a clean line to the basket. (Williams’ overuse of the spin-dribble is a bit of a running joke. Too often, he will gain an advantage with his quick first step and just as quickly negate that advantage by spinning back into his defender’s lap. Or he will reveal his poor court sense by actually spinning into the teeth of the help defense. The spin not only telegraphs his direction, allowing defenders to move into position, but also exacerbates his court vision issues by causing him to momentarily turn his back on the defense.)

On the very next play, he shook his defender with a head and should fake and then exploded past him. Nothing new there, but here’s the rub: he kept his head up and caught sight of the help defender early in his move. This allowed him to gather his feet, avoid the second defender and lay the ball in with relative balance and control. Finally, on Sunday in San Antonio, Williams used a neat crossover to beat the closing Boris Diaw (its amazing how a little outside shooting can open up a guy’s game) and then exploded into the paint for a dunk. It was one of the few times we’ve actually seen D-Will use his explosiveness in attacking the basket off the dribble.

All of which returns us to Adelman’s implied question: Why are we spending so much thought on Derrick Williams? There are, of course, the reasons mentioned above: the talent, the draft position. But, more importantly, there is the fact that, for years now, the Wolves have been in dire need of a wing scorer; short of the miraculous regeneration of Brandon Roy’s knee cartilage, Williams seems like the only candidate on their current roster. Second, considering the Wolves’ logjam at the four, Williams is likely the team’s most tradeable player.

I’m not going to hazard an opinion on what the Wolves plan on doing with Williams this season. It depends on a tricky matrix of questions: Now that the playoffs are a longshot, do they want to make in-season moves to push for the eighth spot? Do they want to exchange Williams’ youth and potential (he is still just 21 years old remember) for a player with a lower ceiling who might fill a short-term need? Whatever the team’s plans, we can only see Williams’ improvement as an encouraging sign. At times like these, we’ll take what we can get.

Benjamin Polk

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16 responses to Derrick Williams: growing, not grown

  1. Excellent read Mr. Polk. The only aspect of Derrick Williams’ game that you didn’t address is his rebounding skills, which I would characterize as quite impressive. He has truly looked the part of a great NBA rebounder, albeit on a limited sample size. Given 36 minutes per game, and I bet he would be top 10 in the league on the glass. He is an incredibly aggressive defensive rebounder and understands angles and positioning better than most.

  2. Williams has to improve on the boards and in his defense because that´s what we really need. His improvement on offense is nice and will give him the playing time to develop his other skills. But for him to become a player the Wolves can use he has to up his rebounding (on the offense as well as defense) and become a more consistent perimeter defender. Basically he has to prove that to the Wolves that he´ll be able to replace Kirilenko.

  3. I have failed to realize that DWill was so young yet. This is pretty encouraging considering his limited minutes. But your right, his coming along now and seems to be picking up the pace both offensively and defensively. I would like to see him create his shot a little bit more with that big first step he has. Now and then he should step back and create some space for some easy mid rangers. He can hit those all day. Love being out will be a good opportunity for him. I will be pulling for him!

  4. BORING ARTICLE…. wait VERY BORING. i will never get that 3 mins back.

  5. Whether they trade him or not, the best thing for this franchise is for Williams to have a great January and early February. If they keep him, I hope he plays well beyond February.

    My problem with the general Williams take above is that I don’t think the guy is unusually athletic for an NBA player. I think he has, at best, average NBA athleticism.

    When he’s in transition and has a clear path to the basket, Williams appears to possess above average — even great — NBA athleticism. This is evidenced by his ferocious dunks.

    When he’s standing still close the basket, he looks less athletic than Kevin Love. He NEVER dunks off rebounds in traffic. For whatever reason, he cannot jump high from a standstill in traffic. This lack of athleticism limits what he can do inside. In effect, he has Love-like athleticism inside and needs to learn to finish around the basket without the ability to jump very high.

    This is something that was true of him in college and is true in the NBA. It’s a bit shocking that it’s true because he displays such incredible leaping ability on the move. But super athletic guys like Griffin and Stoudemire could always dunk jumping from two feet in traffic. It’s a huge advantage to be able to go up strong and throw it down and Williams CANNOT DO IT.

    In sum, I think the super-athletic meme needs to die.

    Very nice article.

  6. “Do they want to exchange Williams’ youth and potential (he is still just 21 years old remember) for a player with a lower ceiling who might fill a short-term need?”

    This is my biggest fear. Since Adelman joined the team, we have been giving away our future to try and win now. Up until recently, I could understand the logic. Unfortunately, the wolves aren’t going to be making any noise in the PO’s (if they make it) this season with Love, Ricky and Bud all coming back from injuries, so I see no reason to move Williams for a “short-term” fix.

  7. I find myself asking for more D-Will, as the season goes on he is increasingly more fun to watch. Last year I did not want him on the floor at all, he looked out of place, in my opinion. I couldn’t figure it out exactly what he needed to improve, but this article was able to articulate it perfectly. I’ll be sure to watch him a bit more closely.

  8. A very good post. I agree that Williams has made substantial improvement and this post describes nicely the shortcomings that remain. I have high hopes for him because he could be a real difference-maker for us. The one stat that I will be watching closely over the next couple of months is simple: how many assists did he have last night? Over the last 20 games (through December), he has a grand total of 3. Three!! And only 11 assists for the whole season! I can see where Adelman would not be impressed by that. Everyone needs to be able to pass and find open teammates in this offense. The dude’s only 21. I’m glad he’s getting a chance to play.

  9. Looks like he’s jumping pretty high in Benjamin’s photo. And I think they do those measurements from two-feet, stopped. To be like Stoudemire, he probably just needs to work on his timing under the basket and awareness (feel for the game). LIke all of the above, we hope those improve as he plays more. Nobody jumps like Griffin.

  10. I know this seems crazy, but what about Royce White. I still don’t even know about it, just an idea. I know that doesn’t necessarily help our “logjam” at the 4 spot (which is a good point), but maybe trade DWill for a nice 3-pt shooter then? In fact, I’m not sure where I’m going with this then. BUT Royce White has some potential if he can manage his anxiety. Any ideas?

  11. Having watched Derrick Williams develop during his two years at Arizona, I can only say that he only gets better with time. He will undoubtedly reach his potential and the teams that do not have him on their roster will wish they did. If the Wolves are too loaded at his position then let’s hope he gets traded to a team that will recognize what a gift he is and give him the playing time he needs to develop. GO Derrick!!

  12. My feeling has always been that he struggles to elevate at the rim because his footwork and feel are poor. I agree, though, that he often does not look like a great athlete in in-game situations.

  13. I feel that the Wolves never really gave Williams a true shot at becoming the player a #2 overall pick is supposed to be. We expected him to be a superstar playing next to Love, but we really never put him in a situation for that to be.

    If we expected him to be a star, he needed to have started from day one. However, wasn’t going to give him a shot because of potential. Now, I like Adelman as a coach, but this is just a stupid decision. If he was supposed to be a star, we needed to start him from Day 1.

    Now we need to just give him 30 minutes a game the rest of the year, let him grow in his game and learn from the mistakes, and then will we truly know if he could be the star we thought he would be.

  14. The idea that Williams is a potential superstar needs to go away. He was the #2 pick in a weak draft. Not every top-5 pick is a potential superstar, and while adding DC negatively affected his minutes (at least when Love was healthy), being a backup 4 for a team with playoff aspirations is an appropriate role for someone of his ability level. He can be a quality rotation guy for a contending team, and I don’t want them to give up on him or give him away, but he rode the wave of a very good, high-exposure college season to a draft position that doesn’t necessarily reflect how good he is compared to the rest of his draft class.

  15. I was and out-and-out Williams hater at the beginning of the season, openly heckling him from the stands and so on. I’ve been very happy to be wrong over the last month or so… he has noticably improved. I think a lot of that extends from his improved three-point shooting. His effort on the glass has been encouraging as well.

    I think I had to re-calibrate my expectations a bit as well. When I think #2 overall pick, I want a star. Williams never will be that, mostly because of his at times Wes Johnson-like ballhandling skills (harsh, I know, but I have that same “oh no no no no don’t do that” feeling when Williams puts it on the floor as I did with Johnson), but he is proving that he can become a solid stretch four/rebounder and eventually maybe even a starter on a good team.

    My one caveat here… he has been getting a lot of opportunities this season to show us what he’s got with Love and Chase’s injuries, and so far the results have been mixed. The next couple months are going to be critical for him to show whether he can become a team cornerstone or just another roleplayer.

  16. I’ve been watching D-Will since his early days at UA (I’m a Tucsonan) and feel that, like so many other scorers, he needs to work on his passing skills and see the court more. He needs to stop worrying about being this or that preefined role and start playing more team basketball. He’ll never have LeBron-like court awareness for a 6’8 athletic-type (who will???), but .4 APG for a 15-20 minute player is unacceptable. Once he hits the paint, it’s time to collapse on him because you know he’s going up for a shot regardless of how awkward the angle. Duncan, Garnett, even Shaq – all great post players who pass well out of a double team or just know where the open man was. They see the whole floor, not just the rim. Even on a contested jumper he needs to get rid of the tunnel vision.

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