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A tortured defense of the Wolves' Derrick Williams

Wolves Spotlight: A tortured defense of Derrick Williams
REUTERS/Adam Hunger
To be average, Derrick Williams would need to boost his shooting percentage approximately 20 percent.

Let’s begin with a controversial statement: Derrick Williams is playing better than we think he is for the Minnesota Timberwolves thus far this season.

What we think has been distorted by the enduring image we have of Williams missing point-blank shots at the basket. It has been seared into our collective memory by the melodrama of its ineptitude and refreshened by repetition.

The results have included brutal blocks, ugly clanks, indelicate caroms and pathetic air balls, sometimes clustered together in sequence. Sometimes the Wolves’ 6-8, 235-pound power forward looks like each one of his limbs is on a collective jail-break from his 21-year old body as he shoots, and sometimes he displays the grace and pliable sinew of a ballerina. Either way, he emerges as a chump, or a practical joker toying with our raised expectations, when he fails to put the ball through the cylinder.

Going into Friday night’s game against Golden State, Williams is shooting 44.8 percent on shots right at the rim, according to hoopdata.com. Although that seems high (again, the vivid nature of the failures punishes the overall perception), it is actually lower than any of the other 85 NBA players who have averaged at least 3.5 shots per game from that point-blank distance. (Williams is averaging 4.1 shots at the rim.)

The average percentage of makes on all shots at the rim thus far this season (through Wednesday night’s games) is 64.2. To be average, then, Williams would need to boost his percentage approximately 20 percent, which translates into one extra conversion every five shots. Since he’s attempting 4.1 shots per game from that distance, we can calculate that his sad-sack performance in the paint is costing the Wolves nearly two points per game, compared with an average replacement value. That’s not good, but it adds some perspective to his most glaring flaw.

That flaw, by the way, has become more glaring at the behest of management. Coming into this season after a disappointing rookie year, Williams was told time and again by coach Rick Adelman and his assistants that he needed to stop jacking up long-range jump shots and drive to the basket. Williams, who had already complied with the team’s request to lose weight and add quickness over the summer, struggled in the preseason to rein in his tendency to launch three-pointers and other jumpers, but has clearly tried to follow orders from the sidelines thus far during the regular season.

What the numbers from hoopdata.com show is that when Williams is within nine feet of the basket, he is much more likely to take it strong — and unsuccessfully — to the rim. His shots per game from 3 to 9 feet away have dropped from 0.8 to 0.3 while his shots at the rim have increased from 3.0 last year to 4.1 — but his average number of makes at the rim have stayed the same at 1.9 per game.

Ironically, D-Will’s conversions from three-point range and from long two-pointers 16 to 23 feet away from the hoop have also remained almost exactly the same as last season. The problem is that he’s attempting fewer threes and more long twos, diminishing the scoring efficiency of his long jumpers.

In other words, Williams is all screwed up on offense thus far this season, with a wretched shooting percentage of 32.4 that is magnified by the fact that he shoots more frequently per minute-played than anyone on the team.

So, how can I say he is playing better than we think? His defense.

Stopping West and Boozer

Last season, because of either laziness, lack of conditioning, poor fundamentals or an unfamiliarity with the pace and personnel of the NBA game, Williams was a lousy defender who frequently reacted too late and was easy to exploit both out on the perimeter and down near the basket. According to data from 82games.com, opposing power forwards shot 53.3 percent against him, and also had more rebounds, assists and blocks while committing fewer turnovers.

Absent NBA-caliber competition, it is hard to put in practical work upgrading your defense during the summer. But after long sessions with assistant coach Bill Bayno over the off-season, Williams came in with a greater appreciation for fundamental positioning and the mental attitude required to become a better defender. Although he is lighter, better conditioning has made him quicker and more diligent. He also recognizes and executes rotations better than in his rookie season.

The most tangible sign of his improvement came in back-to-back games against Indiana and Chicago, teams that feature potent scorers at the power forward position in David West of the Pacers and Carlos Boozer of the Bulls. Williams held West to 8 points, on 4-for-10 shooting, in 19:50 minutes of head-to-head play. He shut down Boozer without a field goal in five attempts in 19:44 minutes in Chicago. According to 82games.com, opposing power forwards are shooting a woeful 30.3 percent against D-Will thus far this season, and while he is still trailing them in assists and rebounds, he’s even in blocks and has reversed the turnover battle.

You can always use statistics to suit your prevailing bias, so honesty compels me to note that 82games.com also shows that the Wolves as a team played relatively better defense when Williams was on the court last year compared to when he was off, and relatively worse defense when he is on the court this year compared to when he sits. I believe the key word here is “relatively”: The numbers still show that the Wolves’ team defense has improved when D-Will is on the court, compared with last season; it’s just that it has improved even more overall, whether or not Williams is playing. That’s what happens when you swap in Andrei Kirilenko for Wes Johnson at the small forward position.

Politics and economics

Williams had his most impactful bad performance of the season Wednesday night, incredibly missing five of his seven shots at the rim and appearing uncustomarily sluggish on defense as the short-handed Wolves were beaten in the final seconds at home by the sub-mediocre Charlotte Bobcats. In the postgame press conference, Star Tribune sports columnist Jim Souhan posed a well-timed, nicely framed question to Adelman: “Do you need more out of Derrick?”

Adelman usually has great command over how much or little he chooses to praise or criticize one of his players. But Williams is the one player from a year ago whose play Adelman disliked who is still around, and he had just played dreadfully in a winnable loss to a bad opponent. Consequently, his answer sounded like a coach trying unsuccessfully to put the brakes on a frustrated rant.

“Yes,” he said immediately. “He didn’t finish around the basket. You’ve got to learn that if guys are blocking shots on you — he did it in the second half. You have to go in with the shoulder first and get a hit on them and finish the shot afterward. He’s a young player, but he’s going to have to learn … but I guess that’s something we’re trying to find out right now.

“He’s trying,” Adelman continued. “It seems like everybody wants to dwell on him. I’d love to dwell on him if he’s doing things well, but he’s just one of the guys. If he’s not playing, then Dante’s going to play [backup forward Dante Cunningham] because he’s been a son of a gun for us. And Derrick, we need Derrick right now. We need him to score, but he’s doing a better job rebounding. I thought tonight defensively he didn’t do as good of a job as he did in the past …That’s something in this league you have to do every night. You can’t do it every other night.”

Adelman’s right — we dwell on D-Will. It’s because he is such a compelling piece in the Wolves puzzle. As the highest draft choice in the history of the franchise, he is especially valued, perhaps overvalued, by Wolves owner Glen Taylor and President of Basketball Operations David Kahn — and perhaps undervalued by an aging coach who can’t afford to be too patient or diplomatic as he works toward the championship ring that would remove the last shred of doubt about his Hall of Fame legacy. 

If you accept that center Nikola Pekovic is already a clear-cut top-10 NBA center and that Rubio will learn to shoot well enough to keep defenses honest, then Williams is also the last enigmatic wild card on the roster, the one who, in poker lingo, might improbably fill the inside straight and give the Wolves a championship hand in the postseason a year or two or three down the road.

In the middle of this vortex is a 21-year-old kid. On the first day NBA players could interact with the media, Williams turned me off by defending his disappointing rookie season on the flimsy grounds that he had played every game. On Wednesday night, with Adelman’s semi-rant still fresh in our minds, the media passive-aggressively confronted Williams in the locker room.

“I’m feeling a lot better,” he said, with a casual tone that seemed more internal mantra than public proclamation. “I’m not worried about misses and makes. If you play the game going off misses and makes, it’s going to be a long season.”

Eight feet away, Dante Cunningham was pulling on his undershirt and checking his toiletries. It is not hard to notice, and to understand why, Adelman has such affection for the way Cunningham has played thus far this season. He epitomizes the grit, hustle and selfless contributions that can make a role player into something of a security blanket in a coach’s player rotations.

When Kevin Love went down with a broken hand, the options to fill his minutes came down to Cunningham and Williams. Despite D-Will’s improvement this season, Cunningham was — and is — the better and more complementary player right now in Adelman’s system. Yet Adelman, for all kinds of reasons that include a dwelling media, a sensitive front office, and an insecure but earnest youngster who lost weight, studied defense and is going to hoop as instructed, tabbed Williams as the starter until Love returns.

Cunningham never flinched. On defense, he has a patented move where he overcompensates and reaches around to one side as the man he is guarding is trying to post him up. When his opponent feels the pressure, he wheels the other way, but Cunningham is quick and plan-full enough to already be veering laterally back in time to close him off. After Williams did such a good job defending West and Boozer, I asked Bayno to explain the upgrade. “I think he’s been watching Dante,” the assistant coach replied.

Now, as Williams was unknowingly giving the media enough of an appearance of cavalier arrogance to get him crucified if they felt like it, I asked Cunningham how he handled outplaying a teammate in competition for a spot and still having to come off the bench. “I don’t know about that,” he said, quickly and dismissively, his eyes averted. “However the coach wants to use me is all right with me.”

Two weeks ago, the Wolves exercised their option to pay Williams $5 million to spend the 2013-14 season in Minnesota. The team has not yet decided whether to pick up its option to pay Cunningham, who is on his fourth team since being a lowly second-round draft pick in 2009, approximately $2.2 million to play in 2013-14. There are too many major financial decisions to resolve first.

Pekovic will be a restricted free agent after this season, sure to garner a hefty contract offer that the Wolves could either match or refuse and let him go. Andrei Kirilenko has the option of taking his $10.2 million option to play here next year or declare for free agency and see what he commands on an open market. Ricky Rubio will be eligible for a contract extension in 2014.

And so will Derrick Williams. Right now, the folks who argued that the Wolves should have sold high and dealt Williams after his so-so rookie year seem relatively clairvoyant. But if that moment has passed, the question becomes how much has Williams’ value been depleted and, most importantly, will he figure it out and tap into his still-significant potential?

Against Dallas last Monday night, Williams, who had failed to score in 10 shots the previous game in Chicago, suddenly drove the baseline and threw down a reverse slam-dunk with a cobra’s quickness and lethal finality. But as the Wolves came out for the third quarter, Cunningham had replaced Williams to start the second half for the first time this season. Adelman really wanted to win a road game against a season-long rival for a playoff position, and Cunningham helped him get it.

It is still too early to write off Derrick Williams, however. He is not Jonny Flynn nor Wes Johnson, two high lottery picks over which Kahn wisely cut his losses. But his upside? Still unknown, and to be showcased in a location yet to be determined.

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Comments (8)

Derrick

Good article, Britt. I'm rooting for him, but I'm coming around to the idea that Derrick will never live up to the #2 pick. My concern is that his simply isn't an instictive player. He's too mechanical, and doesn't have an innate feel for the game. He the kind of player who looks great in warmups but once the game starts, he leaves us wanting more. If he had even 10% of Kirilenko's b-ball IQ, he'd be a beast. But, he is who he is....

Not yet

TJ--

I'm not sure I'd lump instinct and BBIQ together completely, altho agree there is some overlap.

I think some of the tentative, mechanical behavior comes from having to play the game differently than he ever has before. I'm guessing D-Will always pretty much decided for himself when and where to shoot, when to drive, launch, pull-up. Getting yanked by one of the NBA's most successful coaches in history for not circumscribing your game, at the same time you're still trying to adjust to the pace and size of the NBA, could make anyone look like a low IQ player. An absence of confidence affects court sense because you don't, and can't, trust your own judgment.

Bottom line, I'm not convinced "he is who he is" because I don't think he or we know who he is yet.

Good stuff.

My *dream* scenario for the Wolves--heading into this season anyway--was one where Kevin Love played a lot of center, and offensive sets began with that "drag screen" set that Phoenix made famous with Nash and STAT, with Ricky and Williams being the 1 and 4. Love would be a killer for big men to chase out to the three-point line and Williams would become a matchup-nightmare pick-and-roller with all of that open space. Problem is, as you explain, he isn't a good finisher around the hoop. He's actually looking like a terrible finisher around the hoop. I've read somewhere that Bayno worked a lot with LaMarcus Aldridge on leading with the shoulder to get fouled and score. Williams is SO HORIZONTAL when he gets close to the hoop. I don't understand why that is, but he needs to stop it. He should watch young Amare tapes. Or current Melo tapes.

The way, way more disappointing alternative for a player of his apparent potential is to instead emulate Dante Cunningham and be a limited-but-quality role player. Learn how to make the standing jumper, do that in games, and don't risk mistakes. Cunningham has the luxury--if you want to call it that--of a limited ceiling. He plays all the way up to it, and doesn't try to blast through it with his decisions. He's *just good*. Williams wants to be great, and looks bad.

Offensive role

I generally agree with Adelman: we can't dwell too much on Williams. He wasn't the only one bricking free throws or not getting back in transition on Wednesday, which cost them the game. My guess is Jazz fans don't obsess over Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter as much as Wolves fans obsess over Williams.

Britt, how do you think Adelman is trying to use him in the offense (since he seems to focus on player strengths)? Watching Williams' tentative play on that end has led me to it being one of 2 things: 1) He's so used to being a focal point that he doesn't always move himself or the ball effectively (though he's also improving in these areas) or 2) Adelman is running a lot of isos for him when he wants to just be a part of what everyone else is doing.

I always thought Williams showed promise early last year and then struggled once Rubio became a starter and then went down for good. He gets more easy lobs in an uptempo game and with Rubio in the game (Ridnour's one of the worst lob passers for a PG in the NBA). He also showed some chemistry with Shved in the preseason.

A quick follow up

A topic like this is just nice to be able to discuss in this space. Even the other good Wolves blogs get sports-talk-radioy when discussing Williams ("He's Beasley 2.0!" "He's terrible because he misses layups!" "THEY HAVE TO MAXIMIZE THEIR ASSET!"). I've had to defend Williams a lot more than I actually like him as a player.

Good stuff, belated response

Ha! I too have had to defend Williams a lot more than I actually like him as a player, for two years running now.
There is something about his game that feels explosive to me. He has talent in that regard that is relatively rare. I agree whole-heartedly that he is not Beasley 2.0, But a part of me worries that he might be McCants 2.0, although without Rashad's toxic narcissism.
As to your greater question, Greg, I'm not all that sure Adelman is tailoring anything for D-Will. I think he feels better when Cunningham is in the game but know he has to give Williams some burn. I think he believes Williams is better when Kirilenko is around to help on defense (and he's right). If he is setting things up for Williams on offense, he's doing a good job--perhaps no one on the team has had better looks, especially inside. I think the isos are more a product of team's scouting Williams and understanding that he can be left alone in the midrange game until proven otherwise. Down low, it seems like an iso because Williams doesn't dish well (or do anything well, really) with his back to the basket.
I agree that he loved playing with Rubio (who doesn't?) and thrives on the alley-oop plays, And he probably would be better with Shved. But that's two inexperienced impulsive gamblers on the court at the same time--a boom or bust scenario. That's not Adelman's style.
Andy, great chalkboard stuff on the front line possibilities of Love and Williams. I agree that is a very tough combo cover, if Williams can finish at the rim. I think Williams goes horizontal because, like KG early in his career, he is too intent on scoring the basket, at the expense of drawing the foul, and has the athleticism to rise up for 2-foot fadeaways.
Your comments about ceilings and goals vis a vis Williams and Cunningham also felt right on. I'd have nothing more to add.

3 follow ups

1) Adelman is good at running sets that focus on team strengths; do you think that he's not doing this when Williams is in the game or that the sets he's running are emphasizing players he considers better offensively? I mainly bring it up because when Williams is in the game, there seems to be a lot of times when the offense sputters and becomes "Here, Derrick, you do it." He is showing interest in moving off the ball and also finding cutters, so it makes me wonder what's going on.

2) What's your opinion about coaches who have a hockey mentality to rotations (in shifts)? I understand the rationale behind it; bench players who often practice together against the starters then build chemistry that transfers over to the game, and it's better to let a player play and get comfortable than constantly sub. Adelman pretty much lets his rotations go as established in the 1st half and then will adjust in the 2nd half depending on score and game situations, which is good. But the significant incompatibility between Ridnour and Williams (or Ridnour and Stiemsma, for that matter) makes me wonder how much that affects their play and whether they are in during crunch time. Adelman's justified in going with the top performers, but those guys seem to have their effectiveness minimized by who they play with.

3) Fans dwell on Williams because he's seen as a franchise cornerstone; do we need to start considering Shved as a possible one? I know injuries have played a role in this, but I never expected to see him get 22 and 7 in his 9th pro game. The system is obviously a fit for him, but that's the case with a lot of guys on this team.

Sorry I'm late in my reply

Greg--

1) Since the latest rash of injuries--especially the ones to Pek and Budinger--I have had a tough time figuring out what Adelman is running, with any regularity, especially with the starters, aside from various forms of pick and roll. I think a very basic part of the team's core offense is the point guard/power forward pick and roll, and I see Cunningham almost always go up with a midrange jumper when it is run for him. When it is run for Derrick, he almost always pauses a split second, or longer, and then usually goes to the hoop, although against Golden State, he too started sticking the midrange. The plays I would see Adelman run for Budinger, a lot of them corner threes, have been run for Luke lately, especially when Shved is in the game.
Bottom line, as happened last year when injuries decimated the team, there is a lot more pick and roll and a lot less back-cutting and screen, drive and kicking now that injuries have eaten into the team. Remember how often Roy had the ball at either the elbow or on the sideline parallel to the free throw line? I don't see that as often. Kirilenko is facilitating more, but mostly starts it from the slot space at the three point line. I think Adelman's system craves spacing and with first Love and now Pek sidelined, there is no force in the paint to compel a double team, which means the spacing is much less effective.

2) I think you summed up Adelman's rotation pattern pretty well. Absent foul trouble, he tends to leave Derrick in a little longer than the other starters, in part, I suspect, because he knows he won't rely on Derrick as much as the other starters in crunch time. As for having D-Will play with Ridnour instead of Shved, I endorse it. I think Shved constantly puts himself in the air before he passes, which means the folks he plays with need to know how to move without the ball and need to be aware of when they might be getting a pass and know what to do with it. I think these are some of D-Will's weaknesses. I think Ridnour doesn't help him much either, but the situation is less volatile--less potential upside and downside. I think Derrick plays best with Ricky Rubio, mostly because Ricky thinks high, as in lobs and alley oops, whereas both Luke and Shved think low. Ricky also can make passes from angles the other two can't and that really benefits D-Will, who doesn't understand bad angles from good angles as well as someone like Kirilenko. FWIW, I think Roy was a good fit for Williams too, because Roy understands angles, but that is a moot point now.

3) Way too early to talk about Shved as a cornerstone. That 22 and 7 came against the Warriors in a losing cause--in other words, in a very very easy context to get it. I like some of what I see from Shved, and I think he has a chance to be very good. But I'm not drinking the kool aid. I'll have more on him in tomorrow's column.