It’s time for Patrick Williams to come off the bench.
Williams has been equal parts invisible, frustrating and unproductive through the first three games of the Chicago Bulls season, scoring only 17 points while shooting six-of-18 from the field. He has four total free throw attempts, six rebounds and two steals.
Williams did not put his paw print on a single play in any of the three games.
I lauded the initial move Billy Donovan made to bring Williams off the bench during the preseason. Not because Williams is bad, but because Javonte Green’s skill set does a better job elevating the talent in starting group. At the same time, playing with the bench could be the opportunity Williams needs to reset.
But at this point, it’s not just that Green has been better. Williams has been actively hurting the team — the Bulls are -19.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Meanwhile, they are 14.5 points per 100 possessions better with Green. That’s a net swing of 33.5.
It doesn’t take much to argue Williams has been bad, but that doesn’t mean he’s a lost cause.
I knew anything less than a leap toward stardom would lead to fans turning on Williams all too soon. But even as poorly as he has played, three games into the season feels quick. The narrative about these young players swings so dramatically in one direction or another. Less than a week ago, he was the team’s future breakout star and their only hope for a higher ceiling. Now he’s done, according to some.
Williams has been bad, but he’s not this bad. There is a player in there somewhere. We’ve all seen it.
Less than two weeks ago he exploded for 22 points in his final preseason game. He had a career night against the Minnesota Timberwolves in a meaningless game 82 of the 2021-22 season and scored 20-plus in the final two games of a lost playoff series.
But there’s a common thread here. These were all very low-stakes games.
The Bulls need Williams to be a star role player on a win-now team. Someone who cuts and sets hard screens. Who shoots open threes and causes havoc on defense. Williams is more observant and methodical. He seems less comfortable waiting around for the action to find him and unprepared when it does.
“We have three All-Stars on the team. It’s definitely the team’s job to get those guys going,” Williams said. “I don’t think that when those guys play they’re taking shots from me. They’re just really good players. So for us to be a really good team, we’re going to need those guys to play well.
As Donovan has said on multiple occasions, it’s not just about stealing shots or playing recklessly to make it look like he’s being aggressive. It’s about doing doing the little things that help elevate the Bulls stars. But it’s difficult when he feels disconnected from the flow of the offense.
“It just keeps everybody involved,” Alex Caruso said of a faster paced, egalitarian offense. “It keeps everybody in a rhythm to where you’re not coming down, running to the corner, they’re running pick-and-roll opposite and the first time you’re touching it is with nine seconds left on the clock. It keeps you in actions on the back side whether you have the ball or not. So then by the time you come to it, you feel like you’re in the game, you feel like you’re connected with the flow of the offense.”
What Williams provides, or at least what he feels comfortable providing, is not what the Bulls need. And what the Bulls need, he cannot yet provide. That chasm is the root of the problem.
Forcing a square peg into a round hole does not solve any problems. And putting pressure on him to be something he isn’t ready to be might be a larger theme in the organization’s ability to grow talent through the draft.
Let’s not forget the same lack of development with Coby White, Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, Chandler Hutchison, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and Marquis Teague — all of the Bulls first-round picks dating back ten (!!) years. The Bulls haven’t hit on a first round draft pick since Jimmy Butler over a decade ago.
Without getting too deep into the Bulls draft history, some of these players failed to turn into players because they are not very good (or even in the league anymore). Some of them failed because player development is clearly an area of weakness for the Bulls organization.
The East is strong and the Bulls are in for an extremely tough road ahead. They can’t afford to bring Williams along slowly. Even if they wanted to, there aren’t many low leverage games they can use as practice grounds. To get to the playoffs, they’ll need to be near perfect given their margin for error. And that means going with Green over Williams with the starting group.
I don’t necessarily look at this as punishment, and Williams wouldn’t take it as such. Bringing Williams off the bench is the best move for all parties involved. The Bulls will be better for it, with Green providing his activity and intensity next to an otherwise metronomic trio of Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan. Williams will be better for it without the pressure to be more than he is.
I am far from ready to give up on Williams, but he does need time and as much of a fresh start as he can get. It’s also fair to question whether he can be the piece that elevates the Bulls this season. While still trying to compete, the Bulls need to relieve some of this pressure and try something new with Williams, because what they’re doing now is clearly not working.