When you draft a 19-year-old college sixth man, you must be prepared to take on a project. Even if you think he might one day turn into Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler.
That’s what happened when the Bulls took Patrick Williams fourth overall in the 2020 NBA Draft. At the time Bulls were a floundering, bottom-ten team trying hit on a lottery pick who was young but had a lot of promise.
Plans quickly changed as they pivoted to win now. Pushing their chips in to acquire Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball, Chicago committed to contention.
Despite the goalposts moving, the Bulls are invested in Williams and need that growth to happen now. The 21-year-old won’t have the luxury of being brought along slowly, especially in the wake of rumors that Ball won’t be ready to go for the start of the season.
That leaves Williams in a difficult spot. He needs time to develop, but the Bulls have a limited capacity for patience. Having missed the vast majority of his sophomore season because of injury and still only a year and change away from double-fisting chicken parmesan for his pregame meals, what can we realistically expect for him as he enters year three?
Outlier developmental trajectory
We’d all love Williams to turn into Leonard, Butler or Paul George; star wings who didn’t emerge into top-15 players overnight.
Here’s how their second-year stats stack up against Williams.
Even if Williams doesn’t appear to be *that* far off on paper, Butler and Leonard especially are developmental outlier stories.
Remove Williams’s 35-point outburst in a meaningless season finale last year and the difference becomes even more stark. That game accounted for over 20 percent of his points on the season. 21 of his 102, just over 20 percent of his total field goal attempts and 14 of his 41, 34 percent, of his free throw attempts came in that final game. His scoring average jumped from 7.4 to nine points per game and his usage jumped from 12.3 to 14.2.
The fact is, we just don’t have enough of a sample of Williams playing on the ball to know what he is yet. And the fact that he missed so much time during what should have been a crucial developmental period hurts his chances of making a comparable year two to year three leap.
While none of these jumps look completely out of the realm of possibility, all three were already far more accomplished than Williams entering his third year. Leonard made his first All-Defensive team in his third season. George had already made All-Defensive second team by the time his third season rolled around. He went on to win Most Improved Player in his third season and make All-Defensive First Team. Butler’s unprecedented Most Improved Player season was his fourth year in the NBA after having made an All-Defensive team in his third season.
Where Butler, George and Leonard increasingly became focal points of their team’s offense, Williams’s role has diminished. Williams was a standstill shooter last year and has not had the chance to practice on-ball creation save for game 82 against Minnesota.
So even if Williams can achieve this growth, it will only happen if he, like Leonard, Butler and George before him, becomes a more featured offensive option and All-Defensive caliber player. And that is simply unfair to expect given his starting point.
A year away from being a year away
People tend to remember the outlier players like Butler and Leonard, but forget the more frequent examples of a normal or underwhelming growth. Take the players (ages 18-23) drafted the year before him. Plotting BBall-Index’s LEBRON statistic against total offensive load percentage, we can see what kind of offensive productivity these players had relative to how much they have the ball.
This data can offer some perspective on what kind of development these other first round picks underwent from their first to second to third season. Only RJ Barrett and Keldon Johnson have touched positive offensive contribution by BBall-Index’s LEBRON statistic during their careers, and they both started much further along than Williams.
We hope Williams has special offensive upside, but look how he compares to the other wings in his own draft class. He has such a long way to go to get on pace, let alone lap the field.
I still believe in Williams as a prospect. But we’re talking about a sub-15 usage player. We cannot rationally expect a Leonard-like jump in year three from a player who took four pull up threes last season. I’m sure getting to an Deni Avdija-level impact would be written off as a failure, but it would be a huge upgrade over than what we’ve seen so far.
To see him improve, he needs to become a more featured option of the Bulls offense. But can they afford to do that?
The developmental dilemma
Threading the needle between winning today and player development is extremely difficult. Even moreso when you aren’t grandfathered into the playoffs. The Bulls don’t have the luxury of being able to coast for 82 games — they cannot put their primary focus on player development if they want a playoff spot.
But it’s not one or the other. With Ball missing time, there will be opportunity. Both Williams and the Bulls need to make the most of that by manufacturing chances for him to create offense. He doesn’t have to become a 25 percent usage player, let’s start with 18.
Give him a chance to run some offense in second units, operating as a ball handler in pick-and-roll. Use him as a short-roll facilitator and pick-and-pop man in possessions as a screener.
I believe in Williams’s potential. There is a good player in there, but he needs time to incubate. Given the injury and his starting point relative to similar players, we need to be careful with our expectations.
Before Williams can become a star, he needs to become a star role player. A star fourth or maybe even third option. Williams doesn’t need to be Leonard or Butler or George to help the Bulls reach their ceiling next season — he needs to lay the foundation for a leap in year four and another in year five.
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