MINNEAPOLIS The NBA lockout stole Derrick Williams' rookie season.
There were a lot of ways he could have reclaimed it: better shooting, more attentive defense, even a vague hint of consistency. Williams is certainly to blame for at least part of his struggles this season, but there's no getting around what the lockout took from him.
The second overall pick in the 2011 draft out of Arizona, the 6-foot-8 Williams generated excitement the minute he first put on that Minnesota Timberwolves baseball cap in Newark, N.J., on June 23. But just eight days later, the lockout began, preventing Williams from working with the Timberwolves during the summer, cutting his first season to 66 games, his first training camp to two weeks.
Those are tough breaks, but they don't excuse Williams' inability to even once string together two consecutive 20-point games. In fact, he never had a streak of more than four double-digit scoring games on his way to averaging 8.9 points and 4.8 rebounds with one game remaining in the season. That's seventh-best among rookies in points and fifth-best in rebounds not bad, but not what a team expects out of No. 2 pick.
"He's had his moments, but I think the biggest thing is we'd like him to be much more consistent, game in and game out," Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said.
So, yes, Williams needs to take a certain level of responsibility for the level of play he reached or didn't reach this season. But at the same time, he finds himself in a unique position going into the summer. The Timberwolves do not have a draft pick that befits the league's 10th-worst team that pick now belongs to New Orleans and though they have Utah's first-round pick, they won't have a shot at the lottery. Williams, in turn, gets his first summer to work out with the team and have a full-length training camp, in some ways his true rookie offseason. He has something close to another shot at a debut season, almost a second chance under far more normal circumstances.
Of the Timberwolves' rookies, Williams was hit the hardest by the terms of this season. Ricky Rubio had been a professional for the good part of a decade, and he knew the rigors of playing at a level similar to the NBA. Malcolm Lee, a second-round pick who already was subject to far less pressure than Williams, had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee before the season. With that, his rookie year was altered, but by something unrelated to the lockout.
Williams, though, seemed poised to be a breakout player, and he still might be. When the season ends, he'll head to California, this time with assistant Coach Bill Bayno in tow. He hopes to refine his game, both offensively and defensively, and to learn how to better guard small forwards. That's why having a shooting guard in Lee living close to him and working with him will be helpful; Lee can work on facing bigger players like Williams, who will in turn benefit from matching up against Lee's smaller size and speed.
"Like a lot of rookies, he just hasn't had it, and I think maybe the summer, not being able to do anything all summer, not even seeing him until we started that probably had something to do with it," Adelman said. "The summer's going to be a big item for him."
The highest praise Adelman can give Williams right now is that he's had his moments. There's a lot left to be desired for the 21-year-old forward, and there's no way he's deaf to the criticism. But somehow he remains as optimistic as a player who's had a far better year. It's less puzzling than encouraging, a sign that he hasn't lost hope in living up to the projections of a year ago.
Williams said that coming into this season, he wanted to help the team win 10 more games than it did last year. On Tuesday, he said he'd achieved that goal, an assessment yielded either by questionable math skills or utter confidence in a win Thursday. Regardless, Williams doesn't feel like this season has been a loss, and he knows what he needs to do this summer to earn his second chance to stand out. It's a situation where if he fails again to improve opinions will be formed, but if he does indeed take his play to a higher level, the excuses of 2011-12 will become reasons and explanations.
For now, Williams said, he's going to follow Kevin Love's example. He's going to try yoga and attempt to train as hard as his older teammate always has. It's something he demands of himself and sees as natural; both were high draft picks, after all, and Williams looks up to Love. Following in his footsteps, though, won't be easy.
"I just hope he can last through a week of what I do," Love said. "It's a complete commitment."
Love may have been joking but only to an extent. He's improved his game in increments, bit by bit with hard work, and that's the approach Williams needs to take going forward. If he's going to get something of a second chance next season, he can't look for a miracle. Williams has less than six months until reality sets in both the welcome reality of a normal season and the slightly more terrifying realization that he's not going to get another pass.
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