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The Chicago Bulls dropped Friday night’s matchup against the Brooklyn Nets 107-109, and in so doing, their first In-Season Tournament game. Though it was a close, competitive game throughout, and the Bulls had a chance to send it to overtime, they couldn’t get their Hail Mary shot to fall from Zach LaVine.
Aside from the court, which was part blood spilling out of the elevator doors in ‘The Shining’ and part Kramer’s chicken roaster sign, the biggest storyline of the game was Patrick Williams getting pulled out of the starting lineup in favor of Torrey Craig.
It felt like an inevitability. Billy Donovan even tipped his hand pre-game.
“We need Patrick,” Donovan said. “So whatever role he is in, he’s got to help our team, whether he’s starting or coming off the bench. I still think he’s an important piece and component to our team.”
Williams has severely underperformed and seems to be regressing rather than taking the step forward the team and fans had hoped for.
Coming into Friday’s game, he averaged just four points per game shooting 26.7 percent. The career-40 percent three-point shooter was just 2-of-16 on the season.
Worse, he dragged down the starting group, who had a -16 net rating in over 125 possessions together.
But as much as the change needed to take place to put a more productive power forward alongside Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls needed to mix it up and try something new with Williams, who was at risk of spiraling.
Perhaps the move to the bench was the boost he needed. Williams turned in his best performance of the young season, scoring 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. He finally got it going from deep, hitting two threes, matching his season total. He also grabbed a season-high five rebounds.
“I mean, I always carry a chip on my shoulder,” Williams said after his demotion. “Any chance I get, I attack it. It kind of gets you going in a sense.”
Williams must now use this performance as a launching pad for similar, more consistent play. And that needs to come from within him, rather than relying on someone else lighting a fire under him.
That is where the frustration lies. He has proven he is capable of doing the things he needs to to be the player that maximizes the big three. These grab-and-go rebounds, for example, are there for the taking whether he’s starting or not.
The Bulls’ goal is to win games and make the playoffs. To do that, their best players need to dominate the ball because it gives the team the best chance to win. It’s Donovan’s responsibility to put the best support players around the Bulls’ big three to make them the best versions of themselves.
Williams needs to be better in those situations, and take advantage of the opportunities available to him while playing alongside those guys.
He has not done so, so the demotion is more than warranted.
At the same point, there is pressure associated with being put in a box. There is no template for developing players — each one may need a different environment to truly thrive. For Williams, having the scope to make mistakes and play through them might help him.
“Naturally, you know they are who they are,” Williams said. “We know when they have the ball we need them to make plays. Obviously, in the second unit, when one of [DeRozan or LaVine] is out there and the other isn’t, there’s a little bit more opportunity for everybody else.”
With that second unit, there are more opportunities for Williams to stretch his legs. He has more opportunity to do things with the ball in his hands, and there’s less pressure on him not to do the wrong thing when every possession next to DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic needs to be executed to maximize them.
“Just being able to do both,” Williams said. “When it’s my time to step up and make plays and be more ball dominant, I can do that. There’s gonna be mistakes. There’ll be turnovers and it’s all about learning to fail and getting better from it.”
“When those guys have it going, just being a complimentary piece,” he continued. “Doing what I can defensively again, hitting open shots, cutting, offensive rebounds, things like that. I don’t want to lock myself into one type of role. I feel like I can do both pretty well.”
When asked about the environment most conducive to his development, Williams said he feels good about the one he’s in.
“To be honest, what I have,” he said. “I completely have the support of teammates, coaches, that’s all you can ask for, to be honest. It kind of sucks when you’re not playing the way you want to play. But I think I’ve kind of spoke to that to you guys just about taking the challenge of how are you when you’re not playing well? What kind of teammate are you? What’s your body language like? Are you sitting and sulking or trying to find a creative solution to still be effective? So that’s kind of how I looked at it. As a challenge. Who can I be when I’m going through a tough stretch? Knowing it’s not going to be my last tough stretch for me in this league.”
Williams has struggled, made mistakes, taken his lumps, regressed and been straight up bad for much of this season. But the lack of nuance in the discourse is toxic. Yes, he has struggled. He needs to be better. But he is still a big part of this team’s success, present and future.
He has to be.
So it’s on the Bulls organization, from management to coaches to Williams to come together and find those creative solutions that help him grow.
Up Next: The Bulls head to Denver on Saturday for a difficult back-to-back against the reigning NBA champion Nuggets.
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