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.