Derrick Williams is 1-12 from the arc over three games in the Las Vegas Summer League. That’s bad. And that’s playing against borderline NBA players. Granted: he’s also playing on a team of borderline NBA players. But 1-12? And he’s supposed to be the Timberwolves starting small forward?
Beckley Mason makes a great case here for the idea that players like Williams, Kenneth Faried and Paul Millsap—in other words, tweeners—should just be considered power fowards in today’s NBA. And Rob Mahoney makes a great case here for the idea that a leaguewide identity for positions is not functional—that each team runs its own system and has its own philosophy. Thus, it’s fine to have your tweeners play small forward so long as the plays you run and the ways you defend make sense with that.
The problem with the idea of Derrick Williams as a small forward on the Timberwolves is that it doesn’t work from either of these perspectives. He’s 6’8” and now down to 228 lbs, which makes him more or less exactly the same size as Kenneth Faried, a player who crashed the boards with energy and abandon for the Denver Nuggets last year as a power forward. But let’s look first at some measurements from their DraftExpress profiles. Granted, things like the bench press are not the end-all-be-all of strength measurement, but Faried, who’s lauded for his strength did 16 reps on the bench press versus the 19 Williams did. Williams has more than an inch on Faried’s wingspan, tested better in the ¾ court spring and lane agility tests, yet it’s Faried who’s known as defensively superior. Again, I don’t want to put too much stress on predraft workouts since it’s only a snapshot of physical fitness and not a game, but I think it points to the fact that Faried and Williams are at least physically pretty comparable.
Now look at their per-36-minute numbers from Basketball Reference:
I don’t know how much clearer it could be that part of the problem is how Williams is being used. He’s taking 3.5 3-pointers per-36 and hitting them at .268. His FG% of .412 is well below Faried’s .586, but if you take those 3.5 3-pointers and make them 2-pointers and then grant him making half of those, suddenly his FG% jumps to .555. The fact that he’s floating on offense and often taking longer range shots also would appear to crop up in offensive rebounding numbers, where he grabs only 2.0 per-36 to Faried’s 4.9.
The advanced stats tell a similar tale:
Higher PER, higher true shooting percentage, higher effective field goal percentage, higher total rebound percentage, higher block percentage and thus a much higher win share per 48 for Faried than Williams. None of this is exactly a revelation since Faried finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and Williams didn’t even register.
What’s vexing is to see that Williams played 21% of the team’s total minutes at small forward and 33% of those minutes at power forward (as opposed to 40% for Faried between PF/C and zero at SF) last season—and failed to deliver SF-type production which also hurt his ability to deliver PF-type production—and yet he’s supposed to be a small forward this year.
And lest you think this is all stats-based, I watched a lot of Timberwolves games and you could see what Rick Adelman is talking about when he says that Williams “floated” on the floor. It seemed like he couldn’t tell where he was supposed to be and whether he was supposed to be getting to the hoop aggressively or shooting from range, whereas Faried was like a one-man wrecking crew on the court. In Summer League, Williams has gotten to the basket and to the line, shooting a staggering 40 free throws over three games, but that in itself might be a bit of a problem if he’s asked to do that while both Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are down low: there’s just less room down there. Just look at the problems the Knicks encountered with both Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler on the floor and look at how the offense suddenly opened up when Carmelo Anthony played the four. Based on Mason’s idea of these tweeners as actually fours given the way the NBA is going, it seems like Williams could become a truly deadly player in an offense that would allow him to be a fast, aggressive four.
But what of Mahoney’s contention that it’s more the system the player finds himself in than a leaguewide idea of roles that’s important? The problem is Rick Adelman more or less runs the Princeton offense, a system that is founded on a four out, one in configuration with the center in the high or low post and the rest of the players spread out at the three-point line. Now, Ricky Rubio often ran straight pick-and-rolls with Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic that didn’t involve this offense, but as the video at the link demonstrates, it’s still there in the offense. This is great for Love, who’s completely comfortable shooting the three-pointer and also has the skill to rebound outside of his area and works tremendously hard for those boards. But the Princeton offense also calls for the shooting guard and small forward to be more or less interchangeable: both capable of hitting from distance and cutting into the lane.
Now, you can argue that Williams is somewhere between a small forward and a power forward, but no one is going to mistake him for a shooting guard. A player like the recently-acquired Chase Budinger makes a lot more sense in this system at the 3 than Williams. Wes Johnson—if he had turned out to be the kind of shooter and defender the Wolves thought they were getting—would also have worked well as an interchangeable SG and SF.
The thing is, at this point, it’s doing more of a disservice to Williams than the Timberwolves to try and fit him into the 3. I expect him to improve as a player this season and that will most likely mean he’ll be a serviceable small forward, but whether you look at him in comparison to other tweeners across the league or just in terms of how he fits into this specific team, it seems clear that he will only blossom as a player when he’s put into the kind of context that has been so productive for a player like Faried.