Williams learning activity breeds consistency
MAR 07, 2013 4:00a ET
Last season, after he was the second overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, one might have predicted Williams would be an Rookie of the Year candidate.
Last summer, after he lost 20 pounds, one might have predicted Williams would get minutes at small forward.
In October, after Kevin Love broke his hand for the first time, one might have predicted Williams finally would come into his own in a starting role.
He wasn't, he didn't, and perhaps he couldn't.
But three weeks ago, the second-year Minnesota Timberwolves forward was still hopeful. Three weeks ago, just before the All-Star break, he'd only scored 20 points in a game once this season, and that was in November. His rebounding had picked up, but he was still wildly inconsistent — inconsistent being the word that has plagued the first season and a half of his career. Three weeks ago, though, Williams was still thinking that he would improve and how he might do it, and three weeks ago, he imagined that improvement as looking strikingly similar to what's actually occurred.
Since Feb. 13, when Williams went off for 24 points and a career-high 16 rebounds, the second-year forward is averaging 19.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, just shy of a double-double. His 44.4 percent shooting over that period has been a bump up from his early-season accuracy, and though it's by no means great, Williams' shooting looks great when compared to his team's overall dismal offense.
"I think three weeks ago, I was looking at what I am right now," Williams said. "I can be so much better than I thought I could be."
So what's changed, and is it for real? Those questions have popped up sporadically over Williams' entire career, but they've changed in recent days. Last season, and even earlier in this one, the questions came after a game, maybe two. He'd explode for 27 points against the Los Angeles Clippers, as he did on Feb. 28, 2012, and then reach double-figures in just one of the next eight games. He'd score 23 against Golden State, as he did on Nov. 16, and then be benched for two games — and then not score more than 20 again for a full three months.
So the scope of wondering would be short. Is Derrick for real this time? Invariably, no would be the answer, and we'd learn after just a game.
But the question persists. It's been lurking for nearly a month now, with no inclination as of yet that he isn't for real. After failing to string together two consecutive 20-point games for the first 114 games of his career, Williams finally did so Feb. 24 and 26, and then again on March 2 and 4, and now he's hoping such nights become standard practice. The player lurking under the basket hoping to snare a rebound, the uncoiled sinew charging at the rim, the tall, confident athlete telling reporters that his new goal is to log a double-double in the first quarter of every game — these are all the newest incarnations of Derrick Williams, and they don't look half bad in a Timberwolves jersey.
Last week against the Lakers in Los Angeles, Williams was one bright spot on an increasingly depleted team. He'd just scored 21 points in Phoenix, capping of that first stretch of back-to-back 20-point performances, and after an overtime game against the Suns, one might have expected him to be tired. And maybe he was. But nonetheless, he logged extra practice time with player development coach Shawn Respert, just as he's been doing all season. Just as he'll continue to do.
Now that he's scoring and rebounding at an acceptable level and playing with some measure of consistency, Williams is focusing on the finesse of it all. His midrange shot from the right elbow is dismal — he's shooting just 18.8 percent from that spot on the season — and so that's a concern, as is learning jump hooks and other ways to score at the basket. Of course there's the rebounding, too, which has been up recently, to 7.6 per game since Jan. 25.
In some ways, the rebounding might be the key to it all. Just ask Love, the guy Williams is technically filling in for, and he'll tell you as much. He's one of the NBA's best rebounders, and he's spent recent weeks watching as his replacement slowly learns the value of butting his way toward the basket. "At that position, if you're not scoring something, you can always rebound," Love said, and he's made that clear to the younger player.
Rick Adelman agrees, and he points to rebounding as a potential cure to a bigger problem.
"He's been more of a watcher sometimes, rather than a doer," the Wolves coach said, "and the rebounding helps him get involved in the action a lot better."
Despite the potential benefit of Love's advice, the older power forward has tried to not be too vocal — because, he says, things work best when you figure them out yourself — but he has offered Williams tips during games and practices, especially when coaches have asked him to. On Monday against the Heat, Love stressed at halftime that Williams should better attack the offensive glass, and he attempted to, with two of his three offensive rebounds that night coming after the advice was given.
Ultimately, though, this is Derrick Williams' journey, no one else's. Respert can only log so many hours with the 21-year-old. Adelman can only play him so much, and only so many injuries can create more opportunities for him. Love can only offer so many tutorials before eventually everyone is simply repeating himself. Williams has learned what he needs to do, over and over since he entered the league, and now it's a matter of him having the tenacity and will to actually achieve it.
"He has the ability to do it," Adelman said of Williams' development. "It's just a matter of transforming that into a game is another thing. What shots do you take and when do you take them, and what's a good opportunity for you?"
"You have to figure out what your strengths are on the court, and that doesn't happen overnight for every player."
Adelman has learned some level of patience with Williams. He's had to. And now, it just may be paying off.
At the Timberwolves' shootaround before their Feb. 28 game at the Lakers, Williams discussed his development. He was confident, as he's been in recent days, and thoughtful. At one point, he mentioned that his first two seasons in the NBA have almost mirrored his college career. He struggled as a freshman, he said, and then broke out as a sophomore, and that's what he's hoping to do again in the NBA.
And then it hits you: freshman, sophomore, rookie, now. Derrick Williams still could be a senior in college if he so chose. Derrick Williams is 21. Derrick Williams had maybe two dozen games of high-level play at age 19 that earned him the designation of No. 2 pick.
He's not an anomaly, not in this day and age, but that doesn't quite make the whole thing normal. That doesn't inherently speed his development or guarantee that 21-year-old Derrick Williams in the NBA is any better than 21-year-old Derrick Williams would be as a senior in college. This isn't to say that Williams' problems are systemic, but rather to suggest that the system has done him little favors beyond that hefty lottery-pick paycheck.
There will be nights when he looks like the consummate pro, nights when it's easy to forget the missed dunks — which have been fewer and further between of late — and the tiny but glaring mistakes that still pepper his game. There will be nights, too, when those mistakes loom large, when Williams is forced to be a leader and falls a bit short. But there's no question that he's improving, growing into the status thrust upon him almost two years ago.
And so the question lingers: Is it is for real? The question will linger, even after nights such as Wednesday, when he was just 4 of 12 from the field, because now such nights don't spell imminent doom. Now, there's been just enough consistency to think that maybe tomorrow will be a spike back in the right direction, and if it's not, then the next day. Williams believes now, too, and a bad-shooting night is just that and nothing more.
So let the question linger. A string of ineffective games has not yet killed it, not like it did all last season, and Williams seems more than happy to keep on answering it.
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