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A tortured defense of the Wolves’ Derrick Williams

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

To be average, Derrick Williams would need to boost his shooting percentage approximately 20 percent.
REUTERS/Adam Hunger

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.)

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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.

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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.”

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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.