MINNEAPOLIS Derrick Williams is a rookie in every sense of the word.
With his soft-spoken voice and a row of clear braces across his top teeth, the Minnesota Timberwolves forward seems younger than his 20 years. He wrings his hands when he's nervous or upset. He wears high socks that might just be hiding a pair of shin guards.
He's endearing, the kind of player it's hard not to pull for.
But the Derrick Williams who sat hunched in front of his locker Monday night was a far cry from the tall, smiling man who took the stage at the NBA draft. Those wringing hands had replaced one-armed hugs and powerful handshakes. The reality of the NBA has set in.
Williams, a star at the University Arizona who was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, has had to deal with being a reserve on a struggling team since he signed with the Timberwolves. The latest chapter in that sometimes-difficult reality unfolded Monday night before the Wolves' 107-92 loss to the Houston Rockets, when Williams found out he would make his first start in the NBA.
It should have been a cause for celebration, a night he would remember for his entire career. Williams had been fighting for minutes all season, with limited opportunities to catch his coach's attention during games. This should have felt like an opportunity, but instead it became more of a duty, a last-resort effort to prop up a faltering team.
Williams learned he'd start after teammate Wes Johnson became sick, leaving Timberwolves' coach Rick Adelman with only nine healthy players. The night began with worries about minutes and endurance and a short-handed lineup. It ended with what Williams called the team's most disappointing loss yet, a game he might rather forget about than mark as a career milestone.
"It was cool to have my first start, but at the same time we got a lot of people that are hurt and injured," Williams said. "Today was just . . . the whole game we just couldn't get a stop, couldn't make shots. The whole game, in general, was sloppy for us."
Pregame, Adelman joked that Johnson's replacement in the starting lineup would come down to a coin flip between Williams and Anthony Tolliver. And though Williams obviously earned the spot over Tolliver, in Adelman's mind, that kind of arbitrary choice is hardly the way a player wants to win a starting role.
Much of Adelman's hesitation about giving Williams the minutes stemmed from his belief that the rookie is more comfortable playing power forward, not Johnson's small-forward position.
"He knows where he's at at the four spot," Adelman said before the game. "At the three spot, he's not real clear. I think eventually he'll play both spots, but you have to go to his strengths when he's at the three spot, and like everybody else in the league, we just haven't had any practice time to really try to incorporate that."
Fortunately for the Timberwolves, the Rockets spent much of the night with three guards on the floor, making Williams' role at small forward not much different than what he would have had to do as a power forward. And despite the overall sloppiness of the game, Williams delivered a solid performance. In a season-high 37 minutes, he scored 11 points and had seven rebounds. It was nothing special, but he did little to hurt his stock with Adelman.
"I thought I did pretty well, especially because I haven't really been playing the three much," Williams said. "Overall, it takes a lot away from that when you play sloppy."
Those 20 Timberwolves turnovers, the sloppy fouls, the moments when they tried to do too much it all contributed to a somber postgame atmosphere.
Kevin Love coughed and sniffled, his days-long cold taking over a corner of the locker room. Lockers were deserted, injuries negating any need to even dress for games. Players lurked in the tubs, not wanting to get dressed and face reality.
And Williams shook his head, forced to talk his way through a game that might have sounded worse than it looked. But as much as he must have wished it could have gone another way, Monday was a milestone for Williams, a sign that he's progressing and a reminder that he has a lot of room to improve.
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