Patrick Williams missed the majority of Chicago Bulls training camp with a sprained left ankle. But the franchise’s expectations for the second-year forward remain high.
After all, Williams, the fourth overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, started all 71 games he played in during his solid first season, earning second-team All-Rookie honors.
It’s why he’s part of the no-brainer starting lineup for coach Billy Donovan that also features Lonzo Ball at point guard, Zach LaVine at shooting guard, DeMar DeRozan at small forward and Nikola Vučević at center.
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That Williams is moving from small to power forward this season speaks not only to his versatility but to the style of play that Donovan and his staff plan to employ. Admittedly undersized, the Bulls plan to flood the floor with high-IQ, interchangeable players who can read and react offensively and guard multiple positions defensively.
Ball, signed to a four-year, $85 million deal in a sign-and-trade transaction with the Pelicans, is the main engine behind this offensive attack. But his ability to play both on and off the ball again underscores the Bulls’ offensive approach of utilizing multiple ballhandlers and players who can create offense.
LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević all have achieved All-Star status, with LaVine and Vučević playing in last season’s game. All are willing passers.
Ball is known for his throw-ahead passes and desire to get the ball up the floor quickly, either via dribble or, more often, via pass. LaVine is an elite scorer coming off an astoundingly efficient season in which he averaged 27.4 points on shooting splits of 50.7/41.9/84.9.
Already, LaVine and Donovan have alluded to how LaVine could stand to benefit the most by the new-look Bulls. Despite his eye-popping numbers last season, he often had to shoulder a heavy offensive burden. This dynamic was exacerbated by the fact LaVine routinely faced double-teams and also stood as the lone shot-creator on the floor at times.
This season, LaVine will be in more off-ball, catch-and-shoot situations, from which he has been deadly throughout his career.
DeRozan, too, is a mid-range assassin whose ability to get to the free-throw line---he averaged 7.2 attempts last season---should aid a team who finished 30th last season in that category. He also averaged a career-high 6.9 assists last season for the Spurs.
The Bulls slowed their tempo last season after acquiring Vučević and the since-departed Daniel Theis at the March trade deadline. Donovan has consistently preached his desire to play faster this season. But Vučević still will have a major offensive role.
Defenses must respect his passing and shooting ability, making his presence in two-man game with any of LaVine, Ball or DeRozan a challenge for opponents. He also can be lethal as the trail man in transition opportunities or in a pick-and-pop game. He shot 38.8 percent last season from 3-point range after connecting at over 40 percent on high volume over the previous two seasons with the Magic.
There also will be times the Bulls simply want to post up Vučević. In a limited sample size with LaVine and Williams last season following his March acquisition, that trio posted an unimpressive offensive rating of 103.6 over 293 minutes.
The hope is, by adding more playmaking and shooting in Ball and DeRozan, that rating will rise.
Defensively, Ball can be a force and has looked the part during preseason. His ability to fight over screens and harass ballhandlers as well as use his length to disrupt passing lanes is impressive.
Again, he’s the engine for a planned attack that is big on versatility. The ability to guard multiple positions allows the Bulls to switch screens when needed---DeRozan long has been known as a player who prefers this approach---while still giving players like Ball the ability to wreak havoc in passing lanes.
Vučević, who is a better team defender than advertised, has been utilized in drop coverage, charged with sealing off the lane and using his defensive rebounding skills.
While LaVine and DeRozan long have been known as minus defenders, LaVine showed progress in his more defensive-minded role for Team USA at the Olympics. And the length of Ball and physicality of Williams should be strong complements for a team-wide approach.
For starters, the Bulls are set. It’s a unit of players that management believes complements each other well.