Patrick Williams entered Monday’s matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies fresh off the first scoreless outing in his NBA career, a performance in which he shot 0-for-3 in 26 minutes as the Bulls fell to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
So Billy Donovan decided to get him involved early against Memphis. The first play of the night, the Bulls’ head coach said, was designed for the rookie -- a dribble-handoff with Nikola Vučević at the right elbow that Williams flew around driving left, only to be walled off by Grizzlies guard Grayson Allen in the lane. That led to Williams kicking back out to Vučević, who eventually buried a 3-pointer to open the scoring.
“He (Williams) made the right play,” Donovan said after the game. “He tries to put the ball on the floor, he tries to create and he can’t get there and gets cut off, he makes the right play.”
As Donovan has faced increased questions regarding Williams’ usage and offensive assertiveness of late, that’s been a common refrain.
“When people say, ‘Geez, he’s not being aggressive,’ I think he’s trying to read the game and take what’s there,” Donovan said March 31 before a game against the Phoenix Suns. “There’s probably some times he should shoot it. There’s probably some times he should pass it. That’s part of being 19 years old and a rookie and going through what he’s going through.”
“He (Williams) tries to play the right way,” Donovan reiterated April 11 after the Timberwolves loss. “I think he tries to play within himself. I respect that about him. When you get a guy who tries to be aggressive when it’s not there, it’s tough… We’re trying to do some things for him to be aggressive and utilize his skill set. But I also don’t want him to be aggressive and attack the basket and not read the defense and make the right basketball play.”
And after the Grizzlies defeat: “He (Williams) has all the freedom in the world to be as aggressive as he possibly wants to be. But I do think he’s the kind of player that is going to try to play the right way. No one is necessarily holding him back or telling him not to shoot or make plays. But when he does get the ball and tries to put it down and gets shut off, he’s trying to make plays.”
Donovan has also repeatedly preached Williams seek out efficient offense, as in fewer contested, non-paint 2-pointers. Williams has displayed proficiency in the midrange, but Donovan emphasized eschewing far-out tries with defenders draped over him. Instead, more looks at the basket, leak-outs in transition and off-ball crevice-hunting around the Bulls’ stars, especially as the team’s play style shifts to incorporate more post-ups, are encouraged. The Bulls have toyed with him running pick-and-rolls too.
“When he goes and drives the ball and he can’t get to the basket, what do you expect him to do?” Donovan said. “I don’t love him trying to rise up and shoot over guys at 15, 17 feet and them hanging on him on non-paint 2s. He’s going to have to get it inside the framework, out of transition, maybe some offensive rebounds or some of those things.”
Given the promise Williams has flashed in his rookie season, especially as a slasher, there’s certainly cause for concern over an eight-quarter scoreless stretch -- in which he took only five shots -- between the third quarter of the Bulls’ April 9 game against the Hawks and fourth quarter of the Grizzlies one. A cutting dunk to break the drought with 9:28 remaining proved to be his only points of the evening, which ended with a seat on the bench as Donovan deployed Troy Brown Jr. on the wing in the Bulls’ closing lineup (Williams has phased in and out of crunch-time minutes all season).
Such a span stands out in especially stark fashion because the Bulls badly need ancillary offense. The team placed four players in double figures against Memphis in Zach LaVine (21 points), Thad Young (20), Daniel Theis (18) and Vučević (17). The rest of the 10-man rotation? A combined 14 points on 6-for-26 shooting.
“We didn't shoot the ball particularly well all the way around,” Donovan said.
In an ideal world, Williams, who is averaging 7.7 shots per game on the season, sixth on the team, would be part of the remedy. You could say that for Lauri Markkanen (who on Monday submitted the first scoreless game of his career on a career-low three shot attempts), Coby White, Tomáš Satoranský, or anyone in between, but -- fair or not -- the spotlight glares a little brighter on the recent No. 4 overall pick.
Still, Donovan’s overarching point is also well-taken. Every height reached or valley traversed for Williams comes with an unprecedentedly turbulent league context as the backdrop. This class of rookies is forging their first professional seasons without the benefit of Summer League, a full offseason, or more than a few-weeks reprieve between being drafted and beginning abridged training camps. Practice time across the association has been nearly extinguished. Williams has started all 52 games in which he’s appeared.
That’s why the Bulls’ concern level, on the whole, remains low.
“I’m not worried about Patrick. He’s 19 years old. He has played an enormous amount of games. This (against the Grizzlies) is our fourth game in five nights. I don’t speak for him, but I’m sure there is a lot on his plate right now that he’s dealing with,” Donovan said. “For anyone to expect him at 19 years old to be taking over NBA games I think it’s probably a little bit of a stretch right now.
“He’s going to have some good moments and some bad ones. I don’t think he’s evolved into that kind of player. I hope somebody he’ll evolve into that. He’s not that right now."