If you want to think about Minnesota Timberwolves forward Derrick Williams’ 2013-14 campaign in its simplest terms, it comes down to this: If he succeeds, he gets just over $6.3 million. If he doesn’t, he’ll get significantly less.
Rarely are things involving money simple, and this is no exception, but that’s as basic as it is going to get. Williams was the No. 2 overall selection in 2011 out of Arizona and got a handsome rookie deal because of it. He will make just over $5 million this season with a team option for the aforementioned $6.3 million.
It’s a steep price, one that will likely put the Wolves into the luxury tax area, meaning that Williams absolutely has to ball out this year. Minnesota owner Glen Taylor probably does not want to get into the luxury tax range because a) he has to pay it and b) it lowers the amount the team can use on its mid-level exception.
Make no mistake, however, the Wolves would be willing to pay it if Williams steps up and becomes the No. 3 alongside Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic. They would probably would fork it over if he becomes a reliable sixth man off the bench.
Williams was largely ridiculed last season when he was playing alongside the Walking Dead and still couldn’t produce for most of the year. Basically every player except Williams and the departed Luke Ridnour (Milwaukee Bucks) ended up with some ailment that kept them off the floor, and it wasn’t until late in the season that Derrick looked like the versatile scorer he was in Tucson and started putting up nearly 30 points per night.
He still managed to score 12.0 points per game last season, and he’s definitely a guy that could sell jerseys if he gets going on a regular basis.
As far-fetched as it may seem to some fans, Williams could easily end the season as the team’s No. 3, assuming Love stays healthy. Corey Brewer is vastly improved but is basically a defensive plug and not really a long-term solution as the starting 3. If he takes off, Williams’ main competition will actually be Shabazz Muhammad, but while he appears to have the physical tools of an everyday starter, he needs to get things straight in his head and off the court.
It’s a make-or-break year for Williams.
If he succeeds, he’ll get a cool $6.3 million. If he doesn’t, teams will clump him in with Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson and all the other Wolves draft picks that didn’t pan out.
Of course, there is always a grey area. He could turn out to be a decent backup player but not really an everyday starter or a reliable sixth man and end up playing somewhere else.
In order to fully understand Williams’ situation, let’s break it down into three hypothetical situations: one where all hell breaks lose, one where he’s mediocre and another team tries to salvage him—and one where he stays with Minnesota next season.
All Hell Breaks Loose
Let’s address the elephant in the room first: What if he gets injured?
This happens to human beings, and—as every Timberwolves fan knows—it happens to human beings who happen to play basketball in the Target Center more frequently than everyone else in the league (at least it has recently).
This opens up Pandora’s box: How well will he play after he recovers? Do they want another injury-prone player on the roster? How do you avoid rushing him back while giving him enough playing time to do an honest evaluation?
Odds are, unless he looks like a bona fide starter before he goes down, if he gets hurt, he’s gone.
In a less morbid scenario, Williams can still find himself deep in a hole without being forced off the court.
If he wants to make anything close to the $6.3 million team option elsewhere in the league, he cannot be glued to the bench due to lack of productivity. If he cannot slash to the hoop, hit open jumpers and defend adequately, he’s looking at a serious cut in salary next season.
He cannot travel, take too long to shoot or take bad shots like he did at times last year. That disrupts the flow of play and makes him a liability on the court.
In order to be a starter, he does not need to be a franchise player, but he’ll probably have to score around 20 points per game while playing adequate defense. As a whole, the Wolves aren’t really a great defensive team, so everyone who starts has to contribute in a big way.
He’ll also have to compete with Brewer, a good defender and transition player, as well as Muhammad, who possesses a lot of natural athleticism.
If he’s not playing at that caliber, he’s likely going to find himself on the bench for most of the season.
The Grey Area
Let’s say for a second that Shabazz finds discipline under head coach Rick Adelman, and the team is giving Brewer big minutes in order to guard the perimeter, but Williams is productive when he is on the floor and shows signs of being a great player.
The Wolves can’t just give him $6.3 million on potential alone, and using him as trade bait might be the best option.
As a whole, Minnesota is a pretty complete team when healthy.
Ricky Rubio is developing into one of the best point guards in the league, Kevin Martin is a savvy veteran, Brewer is a former lottery pick who can play the 3, Love might be the best power forward in the game, and Pekovic is an absolute force in the middle.
On top of that, there is a lot of depth to the team.
Alexey Shved and J.J. Barea can back up both guard positions, Chase Budinger and Muhammad can play the 2 or 3, and Ronny Turiaf and Gorgui Dieng will back up Pekovic.
This is why the team is so expensive, and it also could hurt Williams’ chances of playing time if he does not shine this season. It’s just way too easy to slot him behind Love as the backup power forward.
Part of the reason why D-Will struggled last season, and this often goes overlooked, is because he had to play the 4 instead of the 3—the position Minnesota brought him in to play.
He should have taken advantage of the ample playing time, make no mistake, but making him a power forward, especially a backup forward, fetters his ability. At the 3 he can choose to shoot from beyond the arc, dish it to the next open teammate or slash his way to the basket. He does not have to work down low and does not have to worry about grinding it out with a large defender.
If Williams ends up as a backup power forward, the team will likely deal him in order to avoid spending $6.3 million on a player that won’t see much time behind Mr. Love.
How He Becomes a $6.3 Million Man
His best bet is picking up where he left off.
At the end of the season, Williams had nights where he put up nearly 30 points and looked like a superstar. He knocked down jumpers. He blasted by defenders. He went to the rim with authority. He even played a little defense.
He doesn’t necessarily have to be a starter to get that team option.
If he can prove to be a change-of-pace sixth man who replaces either Brewer or Muhammad at the 3 or Love at the 4, he might be worth over $6 million. No team, especially one that gets injured as much as the Wolves, can rely on just five guys.
Paying a dynamic sixth man is often money well spent.
If he really wants to solidify himself as an NBA player, however, he will absolutely pounce on that starting small forward position. He will step on the court and light up his opposition. His presence will be felt. He has to give the crowd the impression that he can score every time he has the ball, and when he knows he can’t he’s got to get the ball to a player who can.
It’s a lot of pressure for a person in his early 20s, but the best of the best rise to the occasion, and Williams certainly has the natural athleticism to back any moxie he brings to the court.
That $6.3 million contract is out there Mr. Williams, but you’ve got to take it! It won’t be given to you!
Being the No. 2 overall pick kind of sucks. You’re not the first guy called, so you don’t get all the accolades that come with that, but you’re also not the No. 20 pick who has time to get used to playing basketball at it’s highest level. You are expected to produce right away, a tall order for a young player used to being the best, or one of the best, on the court at any given time.
As was brought up after the Phoenix Suns released Michael Beasley, No. 2 picks seem a little cursed at times. For every Tyson Chandler, there’s a Darko Milicic. For Kevin Durant, there is a Hasheem Thabeet.
Williams doesn’t have to look any further than his old teammate to see what happens to the old pocketbook when a No. 2 player flops. Beasley would have made $7 million with the Suns—now he’s making around $1 million with the Miami Heat.
Granted, some players might take a $6 million hit just to play with the Heat instead of the Suns, but Williams is currently on a team that is deep, talented and ready to contend if everyone stays healthy.
He certainly would rather make $6.3 million with Minnesota next year than $1 million with the Suns, where we know all washed up ex-Wolves go before they are knocked out of the league.
The $6.3 million deal is there for the taking Mr. Williams. Go get it!
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.