If Patrick Williams is seated when the ball is tipped on Oct. 19, it might not be his fault.
While Williams deserves blame for his failure to make a more immediate impact in the preseason, his inability to slide back into the starting power forward spot might have more to do with Javonte Green than his own lack of results.
On paper, Williams easily makes more sense than Green in the top five. Not only is he the organization’s former No. 4-overall pick who needs the developmental minutes, but he’s also a 6-foot-7 physical beast with great defensive instincts and elite athleticism. Plus, as discouraging as his poor production thus far has been, we also have reason to believe he can grow into that role.
Let’s not forget Williams played just 17 regular season games last season, and he actually performed decently well once he returned from injury in late March. The 21-year-old averaged 14.0 points with nearly 6.0 rebounds per game over the Bulls’ final 11 contests of the season (including playoffs). Was it all perfect? Absolutely not. But Williams was coming into his own, and it’s fair to say he might need more than three preseason games to do that again.
The problem for Williams is that it seems like Green doesn’t want to give him that extra time. The 29-year-old – who is headed into just his third season of NBA action – has increasingly looked like a diamond in the rough for Arturas Karnisovas. He started 45 games for the injury-plagued Bulls last season, proving to be a seemingly effortless fit alongside the offensive-minded nucleus of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic. Whether it be ramping up physicality, diving for loose balls, or flying for transition dunks, Green has made the dirty work look borderline beautiful. And he’s doing it again this preseason.
After an 18-point performance on 5-7 shooting (including a 7-7 showing from the free throw line) in the Bulls’ first preseason contest against the Pelicans, head coach Billy Donovan decided to test the energetic role player in the starting lineup. To no surprise, it worked wonders. Green scored 15 points on another 5-7 showing from the field, ending the night with a game-high +15 in the Bulls’ dominant 131-113 win over the Nuggets.
While Donovan opted for change again in Game 3, Green did anything but. After not playing at all in the 1st half, Green dropped 17 points with 5 rebounds in 16 minutes. He splashed two 3-pointers, converted a reverse one-handed alley-oop layup, and smacked an exclamation point on his preseason performance with the kind of dunk you have to see to believe.
Add it all up, and Green has now averaged 16.7 points and 5.0 rebounds on a bonkers 77.2 percent from the field. He’s also gone 10-11 from the free throw line and 6-8 from behind the arc. The 3-ball, in particular, has been a pleasant surprise considering he’s shot just 33.5 percent from long range over his career on just 1.1 attempts per game.
Green is making it nearly impossible to imagine him outside of the starting lineup. We’ve already seen his aggressive defensive mentality work alongside the Bulls’ All-Stars, and we’re now seeing his cutting ability and constant off-ball movement fit seamlessly into Donovan’s newly adapted five-out offense. For a Bulls team that is trying to stay afloat in a bolstered Eastern Conference, they have to prioritize their best players. And, for now, Green has looked the part over Patrick Williams.
To be clear, that fact probably shouldn’t catch us off guard. While Williams tried to work his way back from an injury-riddled second season in the NBA, Green appeared in a career-high 65 games. He clocked 251 minutes with this year’s projected starters – Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic, and Ayo Dosunmu. This was by far the Bulls’ most-played five-man combination, and the second-place group that saw 152 minutes also included Green (it was the same lineup except typical starter Lonzo Ball over Dosunmu).
For a Bulls team that has prided itself on continuity this summer, it just feels right that this lineup has turned out to be their best-looking of the preseason. So why use anything but when the season opens up late next week?
Sure, size is certainly a concern with Green standing just 6-foot-5. But no one can deny that he has a tendency to play bigger than he is. Not to mention, if things start to go south, it’s easy enough to turn back to your highly-touted prospect (who might even have built confidence against opposing second units).
At the end of the day, there is still one more preseason game and plenty of practices left for Donovan and his coaching staff to weigh their options. But we simply can’t deny that Green has made the most convincing case for a spot in the starting lineup thus far, and I’m starting to expect we see him there next week.