Patrick Williams wasn’t supposed to be here.
When the Bulls drafted Williams as the fourth overall pick in the 2020 Draft, they did not envision him losing his starting role to an undersized, journeyman reserve playing on a veteran’s minimum contract.
And yet here we are.
Coach Billy Donovan did his best to quell any suggestion that Williams had been demoted in favour Javonte Green before the Bulls’ 131-113 win against the Denver Nuggets. And maybe, on some level, that is true — the coach fashioned his rotations to ensure Williams closed the first half with the starters.
Donovan made the right decision.
The Bulls looked significantly more engaged versus the Nuggets than they did in their first preseason showing against the New Orleans Pelicans. Green, who earned a chance to mix it up against starting units, was a big reason for that. And so long as Williams continues to fade through games, Green shouldn’t sit for a player who is granted entitlement minutes.
Still, despite Donovan’s efforts to refute claims to the contrary, it’s difficult to interpret his actions as anything less than demotion for Williams. As such, it’s only right to view this as a step-back. For player and team.
Whereby in years prior there were built-in excuses for Williams, they now no longer exist. Not in year three of his career. Not after an uninterrupted offseason, one which he spent much of his summer plying his trade in camp with veteran DeMar DeRozan. Williams was finally healthy, said to be improving on his craft, and ready to enter the season as a newly refined player.
Williams being removed from the starting lineup during the preseason wasn’t part of the script.
It can’t be when considering the ultimate goals of the team.
For the Bulls to reach a new level — one beyond that which they experienced last season — their only path to exceeding expectations was through internal player development. This sentiment became a reality the moment Bulls management opted to leave last season’s roster essentially unchanged.
It’s not fair, and perhaps the burden shouldn’t rest entirely on his shoulders, but in many ways, the Bulls go only as far as Williams takes them.
That Williams has found to be better served settling into a role as backup forward, rather than ascending into a two-way forward phenom does nothing to change the scope of team’s trajectory. If anything, that he’s been removed from the starting unit so soon indeed dampens expectations.
This season was meant to be the year Williams made the leap. It didn’t need to be stardom. It didn’t have to spin like a remix of Kawhi Leonard’s greatest hits. It just had to be a meaningful step forward. The small, simple stuff. Develop the speed and release of the jumper. Make sure your screens hit. Flare more of those passing reads you’ve flashed. Turn the outcome of games with your body, athleticism, and defense. If growing into the role of a star wasn’t on the cards, starring within a role needed to be.
Instead, on the verge of a new season, Williams looks like the same player from his rookie season. Worse still, he has allowed his position within the starting unit to become an open competition.
Green’s rugged approach is what Chicago sports fans have come to know and love. And whilst he will fill in adequately, he wasn’t meant to be the answer. That he may be is a testament to his playing style and character. It is also an indictment on Williams.
Ironically, Williams heading to the bench is entirely a deserved and rational outcome.
As Will Gottlieb noted, the third-year forward will be afforded more opportunities to freelance within pick-and-roll action, both as an initiator and screener. And without DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine being prioritised as offensive focal points, Williams will have greater range to apply his tools as an on-ball threat — something he’s rarely experienced in his pro career to date.
All fair points.
Perhaps mixing up the forward rotation is a logical outcome for all. Williams gets his chance to learn, adapt, and implement a different level of creative freedom. On some level, a lesser role may limit immediate pressure on Williams, which ultimately could be best for his growth.
As for Green, sharing the floor with DeRozan, LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic isn’t a bold, new task. By virtue of Williams missing the majority of last season through injury, Green is already accustomed to being a makeshift starting power forward. As a byproduct, no other player last season spent more minutes on the floor next to the Bulls’ three All-Stars.
It’s one game. The sample is small. Donovan liked what he saw.
Green continued his fabulous start to preseason, scoring 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting. Williams, too, looked comfortable adjusting to his role off the bench.
Of course, it’s still early. Two more preseason games remain. Now is the time to tinker with rotations. Don’t be surprised if Donovan continues to engineer different looks. As for Williams, the regular season still presents a long runway to prove he can win back his starting role.
Ideally, this post will look silly in time. Williams can make it so.
A few good games acting as a reserve may help him find his mojo. And if it does, that may serve him well long-term, and ultimately lead him to snatching back his starting role. Should it unfold in such a way, crisis has been averted.
Until then, we have to be reasonable enough to accept the current scenario is far from perfect. Furthermore, it’s fair to question what this all means. For Williams. For the Bulls. For the season ahead.
That may sound hyperbolic, but think of it this way: How many expletives would you have thrown at anyone who dared to predict that Williams, entering the most crucial season of his career, would be benched ahead of the second preseason game?
Such a fantasy would’ve been mocked. Rightly so.
Well, it’s a reality now.
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