It makes sense that Derrick Williams’ weight over the last year has been fluctuating so much because he’s being treated like a prizefighter that can’t decide on a weight class.
The 2011 No. 2 pick has been trying to find his place on an NBA court since he entered the league and joined the Minnesota Timberwolves. With the team already employing the best power forward in the NBA, his place in the rotation has been spotty at best. He’s been fighting for minutes while reshaping his body to give him a better chance of being a versatile, multi-positional player that Rick Adelman can’t look past when he’s looking down the bench for the next substitution. Heading into camp last year, Williams had dropped some weight in hopes of becoming a small forward next to Love. That idea only lasted for a short while.
“Frankly, I thought last year in camp he made some adjustments playing the 3,” Rick Adelman said after the first day of training camp, “but then he just kind of gradually got away from it. He’s got to really, really hone in on that because that’s chance for him to be very effective.”
Injuries to Kevin Love and the majority of the Wolves’ roster during the 2012-13 season left them with some depth issues at the power forward and allowed Williams to put some weight back on in order to be strong enough to fill in at the 4. According to Williams, he was around 250 pounds last season, something that would have to go way down if he hoped to have positional flexibility on both ends of the floor in 2013-14. He had jaw surgery to fix his bite and help him breathe a bit better. He dropped down to 230 pounds, where he felt a little light so he eventually settled in at 235 pounds. It’s the lightest he’s been since before he was attending the University of Arizona.
“I feel even stronger than I was last year,” Williams admitted.
Strength and quickness will be the key to how well he re-adjusts to playing the wing for the Wolves. With Chase Budinger out indefinitely with his meniscectomy, the opportunity for playing time at the 3 will be available. Corey Brewer seems like a lock to end up starting there, but after that the minutes have to go somewhere and Williams is the top candidate to earn that time at that position. In order to do that, Derrick has to show he can be quick enough to defend wing players while showing the strength he can still use to his advantage. That’s being tested through the first two days of training camp in Mankato.
“I think that’s what coach is looking for, especially on the defensive end,” Williams said about his goal for consistent play after day one of training camp. “I didn’t take too many shots today; I really focused on defense. I know I can shoot the ball; I know I can score. I’m really focusing on defense with Corey Brewer, who is one of the smartest guys out there on the court. So is Kevin Martin. I was guarding both of those guys today. They’re so good off the ball. You’ve got to be in help a lot, especially with those two guys. Guarding multiple guys on the court is always good.”
Having to face incredibly quick wings with a crafty way of moving without the ball and catching sleeping wing defenders at a disadvantage is the type of baptism by fire Williams needs if he’s going to figure out how to defend that position.
“He’s going to have to guard those type of people if he’s going to play there,” Adelman said.
It’s a challenge Williams is embracing by knowing he will get burned quite a bit, but the more it happens early, the more he can adjust to it and figure out how to prevent when the Wolves move from practice to preseason games to games that count.
“It felt good,” Derrick Williams mentioned in regards to having to defend a veteran like Brewer. “Guarding Corey Brewer all day, it’s going to be challenging. I’m looking forward to it. I always want to challenge myself and guarding him for 3.5 a day, I’m going to get better.”
Playing the wing in Adelman’s system and playing it well is paramount to surviving in an unfamiliar role for Williams. Sure, the defense is important, especially on a team the majority of us are scratching our heads over trying to figure out just how they’re going to be good enough on defense as a unit. But as Jean-Claude Van Damme said to Dennis Rodman in the movie Double Team, “offense gets the glory.” His defense should be solid enough but on offense, he has to do the things Adelman asks of him.
“I think offensively he just has to figure out what he wants to do,” Adelman explained. “Got to know his strengths and he’s got to go to it. When he’s a small forward, he’s got to go inside more. He’s got to be more of a rebounder. In the 4 spot, he can stretch the floor a little bit. It’s not easy to learn both of those positions.”
He made a couple plays today that we talk about all the time where he made the right cut. And he didn’t get the basket; somebody else did. But he made the cut we needed him to make because he is a threat. He’s got good athletic ability and when he cuts, people are going to respond. I think that’s what he’s got to understand. He’s got to stay within the offense and take advantage of his skills. We’ll find a way to get him the ball but he’s got to find a way to help his teammates out too.”
Last season, Williams’ most efficient way of scoring outside of transition opportunities was when he was cutting without the basketball. He scored 1.06 points per possession off of cuts and made 54.3% of his shots in those situations. With Ricky Rubio handling the ball and finding cutters off the corner plays when the ball gets sent back his way or he’s running pick-and-roll, Williams is a weapon. With Williams setting up in the strong side corner and waiting to see how the defense reads Kevin Love or Nikola Pekovic in the post, Derrick is a weapon.
The key to his success on offense will be activity.
“I think the biggest thing is he’s got to understand activity is a key thing at the small forward spot,” Adelman said. “You know, Chase that’s what made him good. That’s what makes Corey good. I don’t see why Derrick can’t do that, except he’s used to standing and watching. He’s got to change his perspective on how he plays the game and really got to think about it every possession. That’s where he’s got to be effective. He’s got to run the floor. That’s one thing Corey does; he really runs the floor. It opens up a lot of things. If Derrick can get used to doing that, it’s going to help him.”
Considering Williams is in amazing shape, lighter than he’s been in a long time, and looking to be more devastating off the ball, activity sounds like the right plan for him. And nobody can teach him better about activity off the ball than Brewer and Martin who have said they have tricks of the trade to teach him on both ends of the floor. Recognizing when he will be able to use his speed and when he’ll have to use his strength in particular match-ups is something he’s already cognizant of doing.
“I just try to use my size to my advantage,” Williams said after the first day. “Even though I lost a little bit of weight, I’m still two inches taller than him and things like that. I try to use my post-ups a little bit more. Corey tried to use his speed against me. We both have pros and cons but at the same time, we’re both trying to make each other better.”
This echoes something he mentioned on media day when Derrick said, “Whatever coach asks me to do, I’m going to do it. It’s not like I’m just trying to play the 3 or trying to play the 4. In some spots, playing the 4 is better for me. I’m quicker than most 4s and at 3, I’m bigger than most 3s. I think that’s an advantage I have.”
Derrick Williams is noticeably lighter and by all accounts is having a good couple days of camp as he adjusts to his new physique. His fatigue that he felt his first two years isn’t the same and is pretty much nonexistent. In the process, Williams can learn how to move without the ball and how to better explode to the rim with a lighter frame. Perhaps carrying fewer pounds on his frame will give him better balance, which could be huge for his ability to finish around the basket, something he struggled with last season but improved as the year moved on.
We don’t know yet if it’s going to lead to Williams having the ability to play and thrive on the wing. If he shows it early, we’ll probably see his 2014-15 team option for $6.2 million get picked up without much hesitation. If not, he may be moved or he may have his future with this team swarmed by uncertainty. Can he play the wing with this new lighter frame?
“We’re going to find out,” Adelman said. “He’s going to play there. We’re going to find out what he can do. He’s got to make the adjustments.”