Patrick Williams had played only four games since a return from a dislocated wrist that sidelined him for roughly five months, but his minutes were already trending in the wrong direction on Monday night.
In a meeting with the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls’ 2020 No. 4 pick clocked just 12 minutes off the bench. Only four of those minutes came in the second half, as head coach Billy Donovan watched his team crumble into a five-point loss.
When we blend Williams’ sheer upside with the team’s dire need for more athletic size in the frontcourt, the last thing the Bulls want is the second-year forward on the bench. But we’re also talking about must-win games, and Donovan knew the player he saw on the floor Monday wasn’t one who was helping the team.
“I do think he’s getting his legs and his footing back under him … No disrespect to our player development guys, but it’s not like guarding the same as guarding the guys he’s guarding out there,” Donovan said. “And I think he’s going to have to get his legs back under him to be the defender I know he’s capable of.”
Williams took the podium after the game and didn’t mince words. While he made sure to note that he’s in the middle of an adjustment period after missing 65-straight games (understandable), he also absorbed all responsibility for a lack of immediate impact.
“My job is to be ready whenever my name is called. I think I have to do a better job of that. It’s not on coach, I have to be better. I have to defend better when I’m out there. I have to be better when I’m out there,” Williams told reporters after the Bulls 109-104 loss. “It’s on me, for sure. Minutes to me isn’t as important as what you do with the minutes.
Obviously, I’m not as aggressive. I can be better defensively, I can be better rebounding the ball, I can be better on the floor when I’m out there.”
All things considered, Williams looked even better than expected in his first game back on the floor last week. He splashed a corner three with little hesitation, attacked the rim off the dribble with a nice baseline jab-step, and flashed the same defensive instincts that made him an impressive newcomer last season. However, the rust quickly showed itself over the next couple of games, as Williams felt more like a timid bystander than someone ready to hop in the fight. And it culminated with that disappointing night at Madison Square Garden.
Fortunately, like the rest of his teammates, Williams had an opportunity to right his wrongs less than 24 hours later. No, he didn’t bulldoze men at the rim or swat basketballs into the third row, but he looked like someone who better understood how to help his teammates. We watched him play active defense, shoot three free throws, and grab a much-needed 7 rebounds (three of which came on the offensive glass!).
Could he have done more? Absolutely, but he did enough for Donovan to reward him with 25 minutes, which were by far his most played since returning from injury.
“I think Patrick gave us good minutes,” Donovan said. “I kept him out there. He was pretty good. Alex is dealing with some soreness in his back, and I think with the way that group was going, I decided to keep Patrick out there because of the way he was playing and the way that group was playing …
He offensive rebounded, I thought he defended, he had some rim-protection, he had a really good finish in the first half, he had a couple really good dives to the basket and scores.”
To turn back briefly to the rebounding: I want to stress just how important he can be in that department. A 6’8″ forward with great verticality and a physical frame, the Bulls need him to play an active presence on the glass. And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean Williams has to be the one getting his mitts on the basketball.
On several possessions last night, Williams boxed out opponents to help his teammates secure the rebound or took away angles for opponents to cut toward the rim for potential offensive rebounding opportunities. For a team that ranks just 18th in REB%, and a horrific 29th in OREB%, they need as much of that from Williams as they can get.
Zooming back out, though, Williams simply played a smart all-around game in D.C. And it even resulted in a +8 performance off the bench. I know it sounds silly to talk this highly of 6 points and 7 rebounds in 25 minutes, but that is the kind of approach we have to take with Williams. Not only can he still be a critical part of this team’s short-term success, but his game-by-game development remains a vital storyline for the future of this franchise.
Indeed, the fact of the matter is this organization still views him as a significant piece of their tomorrow. Arturas Karnisovas demonstrated that at this season’s deadline by keeping the 20-year-old’s name off a potentially hot trade market. So while Williams may not be the story of this season, he will continue to be a critical piece of this new era’s puzzle, which is why little steps forward like last night feel that much bigger.