MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Darko Milicic. Hasheem Thabeet. Stromile Swift. Sam Bowie.
Derrick Williams wants no part of that club, one that has grown increasingly crowded since the turn of the century. They’re all players who have been chosen second overall in the NBA draft, a rarefied spot that brings the expectation of franchise-altering impact.
They’ve also all been disappointments.
Others — Marvin Williams, Keith Van Horn — have been underwhelming. Some — Len Bias, Jay Williams — have been tragedies and at least one more — Michael Beasley — has been downright maddening. Since 2000, only two — Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge — have become legitimate stars.
The Minnesota Timberwolves chose Derrick Williams No. 2 before last season. In December, the coaching staff told him he had a choice to make.
He could throw himself into extra work with assistant Shawn Respert and the rest of the staff to try and establish himself in the NBA. Or he could keep doing what he was doing and join that long list of “Terrible Twos” who never panned out in this league.
“I don’t want to say any names, but there have been a lot who haven’t worked out,” Williams said. “A couple have sky-rocketed and a couple have been pretty decent. My whole life I never wanted to be a decent player.”
The Wolves assigned Respert to work with Williams every day after practice, both in the film room and on the court. But the most important challenge for Respert was reaching Williams on an emotional level to spur the kind of growth in his mental toughness that the team saw as the primary problem getting in the way of his development.
“Even watching him in timeouts, he was so frustrated, like a young man who was insecure about ‘Is this where he is supposed to be?'” Respert said. “I saw him get so frustrated where he started to tear up and his eyes started to water because he has no answer to fix this problem that he has.”
Deemed by many scouts as the most NBA-ready player in the draft, Williams averaged 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in just over 21 minutes per game as a rookie. Rick Adelman quickly grew disenchanted with his tendency to “float” and not give consistent effort, and the coach rarely gave the 20-year-old the consistent minutes he felt he needed to get into the flow of a game and be effective.
“My whole life I’ve been that guy who has been counted on the whole time, whatever team I’ve been on, I’ve been the guy,” Williams said. “It’s been a little tough.”
He reported to training camp this season slimmed down and ready to play more small forward. But Adelman quickly warmed to hard-nosed veterans Andrei Kirilenko and Dante Cunningham. Even with Kevin Love out with a hand injury, Williams played 30 minutes in a game only twice in the first month. Love returned, and Williams didn’t see the floor in four games of a nine-game stretch, which prompted the prodding to work with Respert.
So Williams took the challenge, staying late after practice and always being among the first players on the court for pregame routines. He’s shown flashes along the way, including 23 points, seven rebounds and four blocks against Golden State, and 18 points and 11 boards against Washington.
The coaches want that to be more of the norm and not just a surprising surge once every few weeks.
“The young man, you can tell there’s so much upside,” Respert said. “This is why the scouts looked at him as a No. 2 pick.
“Also, he can easily be historically a lot of the No. 2s that have come in the league if he’s not careful. If he doesn’t stay sharp and work like he’s been working, he can easily fall back into the mix of a guy that struggles in this league. He doesn’t have a true identity right now. We’re working on what it is that he can contribute every single night to help a team win.”
He also picked up five fouls in 13 minutes of a loss to the Clippers on Wednesday night, struggling against the bigger, more physical team.
“Derrick’s such a nice kid,” assistant Bill Bayno said. “We’ve been telling him you’ve got to leave that nice kid in the locker room. When you step on the court, you’ve got to be nasty and mean and tougher.”
What Adelman has to be reminded of occasionally is that Williams is just 21 years old. It will take patience, and a willingness to let him play through some mistakes.
“I think now for him we can take the training wheels off a little bit and see how he can balance himself,” Respert said. “He’s going to fall off his bike still. He’s going to have some scars. I told him that scars are OK. They heal. You don’t want wounds to go untreated.
“There’s something wrong with your game. We see it. And we’re going to try and fix it. If we left it alone, there would be a problem. Don’t be upset because people nitpick. Run harder, jump, box out. That’s all of our games. We all had to go through that process.”
If anyone knows what Williams is going through, it’s Respert. After a standout career at Michigan State, Respert was selected eighth overall in 1995, but health issues contributed to a career that never took off. Being able to relate to Williams seems to have helped Respert reach him on a different level.
“The whole mental part, he’s right about that,” Williams said. “Just being low and last year not knowing what to expect, it was tough. Just working with him after practice and keeping my confidence up, he’s been right there with me since then.”
Williams is leaning on veterans such as Brandon Roy and Kirilenko for guidance, as well, and they have served it to him straight.
“He’s just in his second year and he has a long career ahead of him,” said Roy. “I think he’s at the point where he has to start focusing a little bit more out there on the court and paying attention to the details.”
Williams’ name has come up in trade rumors, but he is determined to make things work in Minnesota. As frustrated as he’s been, he’s never requested a trade. He’s going to work now, and that’s why Respert has such high hopes for him.
“The biggest improvement I’ve seen is I like the fact that he’s had some ownership now in his own development,” Respert said. “We don’t have to go searching for him like we used to. Now I see him searching for us.”
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