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The Burden of Expectation, Derrick Williams, and Fresh Starts

Fair or unfair, the spot a player’s drafted carries certain expectations, especially for a high draft pick. Yet players don’t choose where they are selected or if they will be a good fit in their new city. A key determinant of a player’s success is the build of the roster around them, as well as having a coach with a system in place that will accentuate their abilities and foster their growth and development. Very few, if any, of those things are in a player’s control.  Therefore, a player who does not land in a favorable situation can face an uphill climb to success in the NBA, which can be a daunting task for a 19 or 20 year old kid. There’s a reason collegiate success is not any indicator of professional success, since players at the next level are not only physically superior, but also more intelligent as players to enable coaches to put in place more advanced schemes. And there’s a reason only 400-500 people in the entire world are capable of playing in the NBA.

Take Sacramento Kings forward Derrick Williams, who was taken with the number two overall pick in 2011 by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Williams’ fit was immediately called into question, even though a lottery team should not be one to draft for need; get the talent, figure out the fit later. Yet Williams’ road to success was immediately filled with blocks and obstacles. Not only was there a lockout looming, but there were already players entrenched ahead of him at both forward positions, with Kevin Love being the most notable. Eventually, the Timberwolves hired a great coach in Rick Adelman, but this set the Timberwolves into a win-now mode, not a player development mode. Adelman said at the time he didn’t want Derrick to come in and focus on learning two positions in the NBA, so they were going to have him focus solely on his most natural position, the power forward. Not to make excuses for Williams, but he was now going to have to make the most of an abbreviated offseason because of the lockout and playing minutes at a position (small forward) that he had never played as an amateur, no less at the highest possible level.

Still, there was no reason to move him right away. With his abilities, it was worth seeing if a fit could be found in any way. He needed to improve as a defender, improve his shot selection, and prove that he had the range after a bit of an outlier season shooting the three at Arizona. There’s no denying: Derrick worked to make it work in Minnesota, but just never could make the pieces fit. He lost weight to better play the small forward position and worked on his shot to add the range necessary to play the three. And during the Timberwolves’ injury-riddled 2012-’13 season, Williams found a slight uptick in his minutes and his production rose as a result. Everything that Adelman asked him to do — focus his energy on defense, rebound, and not inhibit the flow of the offense — he did, and Adelman rewarded him accordingly with playing time. There were even times Williams looked competent defending fours in the paint, but he was just too undersized to guard longer and more athletic defenders. Even on offense, for every time Williams would do something well within the flow of the offense, he would turn around and make a mistake while trying to create for himself. It was frustrating because it had become apparent that he still had a long way to go and that not having a set position made it difficult to set up a program of development for him.

Then, this summer former Purdue star Robbie Hummel joined the team as a small forward and was praised by Adelman for being a solid player who doesn’t do anything that he can’t. In other words, he wasn’t Derrick Williams. Perhaps trying to do more than he had to due to the own lofty expectations placed on him with the number two overall selection caused Williams to try to do too much, instead of playing more within himself. Still, Hummel would take Williams’ minutes at the small forward as teammate Dante Cuningham did at the power forward the season before. Not being used to dealing with the diminished minutes, Williams struggled to get in rhythm in two-plus seasons and his numbers consequently suffered. The writing seemed to be on the wall that there was just no way it was going to work out for Williams in Minnesota and his days may have been numbered.

Fast forward to last week when Williams was traded straight up for Luc Mbah a Moute — a player who does all of those little things in Adelman’s system and rarely tries to do anything outside of his game. For these Timberwolves, this gave them a player that would bolster their perimeter defense and someone they could ultimately use on a nightly business. For Derrick, this opened up a whole new world.

Now, Williams only has to compete with journeymen veterans Travis Outlaw and John Salmons for playing time, so even though the three isn’t his best position, he will still get to see the court more than he would have in Minnesota. There will be no more having to be forced into a role that he is ill-suited for because there is already a star player ahead of him, and he will get the chance to grow on a team that is still in the player development stage. Historically, the Kings have not been a hotbed for player development, but we’ve seen both DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas improve each year. The Kings will likely spend the next few years in this mode with Ben McLemore being a high pick, as well as any other young talent they may add. This is also a new era in Sacramento: one that isn’t run on the cheap at the expense of players and fans alike.

More than that, this will be a chance for Williams at a new start. It always feels like once a highly drafted player is traded by the team that drafted him, those expectations drop and the player is viewed as “tainted” or damaged goods in the eyes of the public. For Williams, now being on his second stop, the idea that he was given up on (true or not) also means that he no longer has to be fully burdened by the expectations of his draft slot, He has some things to prove yet in the NBA, and we don’t know exactly what he is, but we can tell that he can be something. We’ve seen Williams succeed as a player who works best off of cuts and spot-ups and can play capable defense with the right matchup. If he can do those things, he can be a valuable rotation player. That may not have been the expectation when the Timberwolves selected him second overall, but that’s more than most people in this world get, and may ultimately be all that he was destined for. Perhaps he was never actually the second-best player in the draft, but he still has the chance to go down as a very useful player. Who knows, he could expand his game someday to become more than that since he is just 23 years old. The good news is that Williams was handled in a way to keep him from being damaged goods or tarnished, so the future is still ahead of him. For Minnesota, he was going to have to carry these burdens as his cross to bear until he met them or as long as he was there. From here on out, those burdens are no more, or at least lessened. He may not have been a star in Minnesota, but still stands the chance to be a star in somebody else’s sky.

Derek James

In addition to writing for Hardwood Paroxysm, Derek James covers the Minnesota Timberwolves for Howlin’ T-Wolf and the Charlotte Bobcats for SB Nation’s Rufus on Fire. He often finds himself writing too many words on irrelevant players. Andray Blatche and Isaiah Rider follow him on Twitter. Unrelated to LeBron James, but taught him everything he knows.