Derrick Williams is still searching for stability

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports /

Whoever said change is good for the soul likely never took Derrick Williams’ NBA career into account. When he left the University of Arizona as a 20-year-old, Williams’ athleticism and versatility, and the heavy potential that came with it, was enough to convince the Minnesota Timberwolves to make him the second overall selection in the 2011 Draft. It made sense at the time, but that has arguably been the peak of Williams’ career. Not all of this is on him — Williams spent virtually his entire career adjusting to new teams, systems, and coaches, hardly lending itself toward prolonged success. But, as he’s bounced from one losing team to another, Williams has become a cautionary tale without ever quite failing. He’s just never been anywhere near enough to success to have a chance.

Williams’ five-year resumè is splattered with stops in Minnesota, Sacramento, and New York, all teams in various stages of dysfunction; add it up, and entering this season he has enjoyed a total of 150 wins out of a possible 410 opportunities. He’s with his fourth team, and eighth head coach, on his current one-year deal with the Miami Heat. Miami is the least dysfunctional organization Williams has ever been a part of, but he’s caught on in Miami as part of a rebuilding season after the losses of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Consider it another step in the long and painful learning process that has been his NBA career.

“Man, I mean, it’s difficult when you’re 20, 21-years old and still trying to find your way in this league and everything wasn’t really going the right way,” Williams told The Step Back at the start of the year. “It doesn’t help that every couple of months I was getting another coach and whether a coach was getting fired or taking a leave of absence or whatever it might be…I never want to use that as an excuse but, sometimes, that is part of the problem.”

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Williams denies having any regrets about his chaotic career path, and that makes some sense; despite the sustained struggles so far, he’s already earned $25 million, and is still learning on the job how to be a NBA player. “A lot of the time, when you’re so successful early on and something happens, people don’t know how to respond to it,” he says. “I think that being so young and plenty of those things happened to me early in my career, it really helps later. I’m 25 now, but I’m still not even close to where I know I can be. Sometimes, people write you off but that’s fine—I’m still here playing this game that I love and each and every year I’m getting better.”

Man, I feel like I’ve had spurts, 10-15-20 games where I’ve played very well and the next 10 games, I might not have

There’s a dissonance in Williams’ response, though, particularly considering the disordered pattern his tenure has followed thus far. While the coaching carousel and constant relocation certainly did Williams no favors, there’s a chicken-and-egg aspect that he was unwilling to discuss. There are a number of reasons why front offices send players or coaches packing, but they tend to keep the ones that are most successful, even as everything else may be crumbling around them. Williams has never been that player, and his vagabond years are proof positive of that.

That was one of the reasons why he chose Miami this past offseason, a decision that hasn’t worked out quite like either party envisioned it. Miami, to an extent that’s unique among contenders, has historically enjoyed success resuscitating careers even as they’ve chased superstars and championships in equal measure. With Bosh and Wade gone, the Heat are building around Hassan Whiteside, whose own career had stalled after falling out of league-wide favor just two seasons ago; he just signed a long-term deal worth $98 million in July, and his potential finally paid off. It’s hard to imagine a better career role model for Williams, who has been intermittently brilliant but similarly spotty during his NBA apprenticeship.

“Man, I feel like I’ve had spurts, 10-15-20 games where I’ve played very well and the next 10 games, I might not have,” Williams says. “Everybody’s going to have a bad game but the great players come back after one game, stay consistent. That’s really what I’ve been trying to focus on this season, to not let mishaps go through two to three to four to five games.”

When asked why those lapses begin, Williams offered a tepid explanation. “Sometimes it can be that inconsistency I referred to, sometimes it can be minutes, or inconsistency with the coaching staff or with myself, a little bit of everything.” It’s a tough question to answer, to be fair, and Williams is still working his out. He points to an understandable erosion of confidence, one that was slowly rebuilt during his stint with the Knicks—“That was the first year that I feel I came back to myself,” he says—but which is still very much a work in progress. If Williams’ season in New York was the best of his career, the reality is that he was still only a reserve player on a team that won 32 games and was never in the hunt for a playoff spot. For a former second overall pick, he’s still behind the curve.

“People learn that way, as well,” Williams says. It’s at this point that a new teammate, one who is himself looking to restart his career in Miami, interrupted the interview by yelling out, “Unselfish! Team player!” and, most perplexingly, “I’m a robot!” Williams cracks a smile, struggling as he continues responding to questions.

The comments might be directed jabs at Williams’ canned answers, which he’s likely had to deliver repeatedly throughout his career at each new stop along the way. It could also be a denouncement on the whole interviewing process, based as it is on thumbnail answers that hint at broader truths that athletes are understandably unwilling to reveal. Perhaps it’s merely the camaraderie of the locker room and not worth examining too deeply.

I want to be what everyone thinks I’m gonna be

But, as Williams goes on, his teammate’s cliched answers echo. Williams gushes over his new team, noting in particular how head coach Erik Spoelstra is the kind of person “that is going to give you the right answer every single time, whether you like it or not.” He adds that Pat Riley, the team’s president, has helped not just Williams but the younger players that are part of Miami’s rebuilding process. He explains that there’s been no pressure to fill in for Bosh and waxes on about the team and the opportunity to continue displaying his versatility, both offensively and defensively. This is all what he’s supposed to do. Williams is not a robot—he’s smart and personable and quick—but in a career that’s full of question marks, the answers still feel empty.

There is one important truth buried in these responses, though. Williams’ emergence as a defender has generally been a neglected aspect of his career, but as his offensive game has plateaued, his defensive effort has kept him valuable. Williams explains that his defensive evolution is a natural side effect of having played for so many lousy teams, perhaps transmitted by way of airborne apathy. “Whenever you’re on overall bad teams, an overall bad record, I don’t think anyone plays good defense,” Williams says. “You know what I mean? One through five, it’s a team game and when you lose 50-60 games in a season, I don’t think anybody plays good defense.”

Miami’s approach to defense, Williams contends, will bring out the best of him and that one of Spoelstra’s gifts is to do exactly that. “The organization wants me to play well, my teammates want me to play well…so it’s just a different feel here in this organization, where everyone’s on the same page and it’s not like every man for themselves like it’s been on a couple of the other teams I’ve been on.”

That kind of structure, as necessary as it might be, doesn’t translate immediately to playing time, though, and Williams sat glued to the bench for the first six games of the season. He got his first taste of action during a blowout loss in the midst of an early losing streak and then earned his first start (at power forward, no less) a few nights later, bringing his athleticism and energy to bear with each rusty step.

He’s been the starter ever since but it’s difficult to say that he’s truly earned the honor; it’s more a function of a lineup haphazardly assembled and filled with glaring weaknesses. Moreover, that familiar inconsistency still defines Williams’ impact. He’s shooting just 40 percent overall while averaging a career-low 6.4 points per game. He can still find a way to maximize his athleticism while scoring on slower, bigger defenders but those instances are too few to consider this season his long-awaited breakout.

Rather, this is likely just a one-time future star willing his way into a middling team’s rotation and hoping that he shows enough flashes of potential to warrant extending his NBA career. Williams knows he’s going to have to make it work in Miami, and to make what was once a sure-thing NBA career into a real one.

“I want to be what everyone thinks I’m gonna be,” he says. In his fifth NBA season, Williams is still trying to define himself. He’s far from the success story that was predicted for him but it isn’t over yet. The pages remain blank, alternately filled with hope and unrealized potential, and Williams, perhaps for the first time, finally has a say in how they’ll be filled.