It wasn’t that long ago that we thought Derrick Williams would be great.
Flash back two years ago to William’s final win at Arizona. He’s in the Sweet 16, about to topple the defending champion Duke Blue Devils. He would score 32 points, grab 13 rebounds and go 5-for-6 from three-point range. His team would win the game, 99-77.
With about eight minutes to go in the contest, Williams receives a pass at the top of the key, pump-fakes Miles Plumlee, takes two dribbles to the rim and throws down a monstrous slam-dunk.
At the time, he looked like the perfect fit for Minnesota. Sitting at No. 2, it was unlikely that the Wolves would land Kyrie Irving, the consensus No. 1 pick, but remember that Irving had only played 11 games at Duke and Williams and had two years of college basketball for teams to evaluate him with.
Furthermore, Williams looked like a better fit. The Wolves already had a dynamic point guard in Ricky Rubio, but could really use a three-point shooter at the 3, and it is always nice to have a player at the 4 should Kevin Love or Nikola Pekovic need a rest.
Williams looked like he could be that guy. While Williams, who is 6’8”, 241 lbs., may be a little large for 3, his .568 three-point percentage and .595 field goal percentage his sophomore year indicated that he could eventually find a home in that role. Worse case scenario, he becomes a serviceable backup for Kevin Love, right?
Williams shot 26.8 percent from beyond the arc and is not a great defender to begin with, so smaller players were picking him apart. So he was moved to 4, but his play did not improve. D-Will shot 41.2 percent from the field in his first year and has been only marginally better this year (42.8 percent).
Last year, the team and player justified his play because he was a rookie adjusting to the professional game and pointed out that Williams’ minutes were limited because he plays the same position as Love, the team’s superstar.
That excuse does not work this year, however.
The 2012-13 Minnesota Timberwolves have been severely hampered by injury. Love, most pertinently, has only played in 18 games and began the year with a broken hand which, in turn, has given Williams ample time to develop as a 4. His competition for the position? Journeyman Dante Cunningham, a 2008 second-round pick that had only made 25 starts in four years, and the undrafted, peripatetic Lou Amundson that only had seven starts in 288 career starts.
This was Williams’ big chance. He could justify being the highest-picked player in Wolves' history. He could establish himself as the pick-and-pop weapon everybody thought he would be out of college. He could be the guy everyone thought he would be coming out of Arizona.
Instead of making it rain, however, Williams’ jumper was drier than the Arizona desert, and he was relegated to the bench. “It’s not as if Williams was the first rookie to enter the league with some areas of concern,” wrote SI’s Rob Mahoney in December. “But injuries to Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio put the Wolves in a position with an almost nonexistent margin for error. They won games with defense, and couldn’t afford to have Williams learning on the job while logging heavy minutes. So Adelman instead defaulted to Dante Cunningham.”
Translation: Williams blew it.
So, why keep him?
Love has re-injured his hand and will be out for another 6-8 weeks, meaning that Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko will be manning the frontcourt.
In an ideal world, Williams gets his three-point shot back and compliments the ability of both players by opening up the court and filling a glaring weakness for the team. Unfortunately, most players don’t magically get better at shooting threes in the middle of the season and, on top of that, Williams already failed to hold down a role while Love was injured the first time.
What’s more likely to happen is the Wolves fill the 1, 2 and 3 positions with a rotation that includes Rubio, JJ Barea, Luke Ridnour and Alexey Shved. This means that Pekovic and Kirilenko start the game at the forward positions and Williams fills in off the bench. A tweener, he may get some time at the 3, but odds are he’ll be replacing Pekovic and Kirilenko more often than not. It also means he’ll be fighting for minutes with Cunningham once again.
Supposedly, Williams has the most upside of all those players except Pekovic. AK-47 is an established NBA veteran, but will not replace K-Love’s offensive production and is on the wrong side of 30. Cunningham was signed a depth player and does not have the natural athleticism of Williams. Pekovic is the only player in his prime that is a proven scorer and has the tools of an everyday starter.
Asking Williams to replace Love’s production, in any capacity, is a bit of a pipe dream—especially because he didn’t do it the first time around—but it’s more reasonable than thinking that Cunningham or Kirilenko will at this point.
Also, let’s not forget that Rubio is back.
He is not starting games, isn’t defending like he once did and may not have all of his confidence back yet, but he has been getting regular playing time and should eventually slip back into the starter’s role, barring another injury (keep your fingers crossed, Wolves fans).
You know that economic aphorism that states, “A rising tide lifts all boats?” Well, this is the opposite of that. Not to deify our Spaniard friend, but Rubio is like a boat that raises the tide.
In short, his play makes everyone else around him better.
Rubio is an unselfish player who puts the teammates around him in position to score. His abilities place him among the game’s elite and are unparalleled by Shved, Barea, Ridnour or anybody else on the team.
Williams may have received more minutes with Love out, but he also wasn’t playing with a player like Rubio. As the point guard gets healthier, his game should improve, and (hopefully) Williams will be more productive with the increased minutes he receives.
If Williams can get over this hurdle and turn himself into the star he was in Arizona with Love out, Minnesota not only should make the playoffs after a tumultuous start to the season, but may have a replacement for Love, should he leave via free agency when his contract is up.
If not, we’ll all wonder what could have happened if Minnesota had gotten the No. 1 pick two years ago and had Uncle Drew and Wes on the same team.
All statistics are accurate as of January 14, 2012.
Tom Schreier covers the Timberwolves for Bleacher Report and writes a weekly column for TheFanManifesto.com.