Back in September there was a little panic in New York over how bad the Knicks were going to be. Carmelo Anthony was coming off an injury, the Knicks drafted some dude from Latvia, the rapidly aging Jose Calderon was their only experienced point guard and there was a pretty good chance Derrick Williams was going to log major minutes at power forward. Things weren’t looking great.
For everyone disappointed that they’ve lost two in a row after a four-game winning streak, let’s go back to the summer and ask our former selves how we would’ve felt about an 8-8 record through 16 games. Most would’ve said that would’ve been more unlikely than the Warriors starting 16-0, yet the last two games and particularly the loss to Orlando just feel disappointing.
A large part of that comes from raised expectations. It’s tough to look at this team as overachieving now that they’ve proven they’re better than we originally thought, even if most fans and pundits would admit they still have some pretty serious flaws. The biggest jump in expectations has come from Kristaps Porzingis, who’s the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, and has shown the ability to play the 4 or the 5 and be a dynamic player on both sides of the court. However, the first Knick to really breathe life into the fan base was the one guy fans didn’t want them to sign, let alone see the court, in the enigmatic Williams.
As mentioned earlier, back in September there was some backlash to the idea Williams could start at the 4 alongside Anthony, or even earn major minutes on a bad Knicks team. Then came October, and Williams was one of the best surprises of the preseason as he really gave his opponents all they could handle during the run of exhibition games. He shot the ball well, scored in transition and hit nearly 40 percent of his threes.
More than that, he actually was the one guy the team seemed to rally around to form an identity. Langston Galloway, Jerian Grant and Kyle O’Quinn followed right behind Williams. They came together as an energetic unit that worked hard on the boards and put pressure on defense by virtue of seemingly effort and effort alone. Anthony Beers warned us all to take it slow and not to get ahead of ourselves, and yet there I was buying in to the Derrick-freaking-Williams era.
It was true, though, that the team took its cue from that group. Anthony was and is still the best player, but the Knicks‘ effort was the single-most amazing thing about the team before Three 6 Latvia started slamming back one missed shot per game and recording double-doubles on the regular. Williams averaged 16 minutes per game during the 3-4 start to the season, averaging better than 10 points per game on better than 40 percent shooting in his limited action.
In the last nine games, that hot streak has turned. He’s playing fewer than eight minutes per game, including a straight DNP last game. He’s under four points per game over that stretch and connecting on a miserable 24 percent from the field. Part of the change comes with getting Arron Afflalo back in the lineup — which has added some height in the backcourt and allowed Anthony to log more minutes at the 4 — and of course the emergence of Porzingis as Melo’s second banana.
After not even stepping foot onto the court last game, Williams seems to have reached a frustration point, according to Scott Cacciola of The New York Times, who wrote that the former second overall pick was confused by the rotation.
“I can’t really control that,” Williams said. “That’s up to the coaching staff. But at the same time, it does get frustrating when I know I can help.”
Fisher’s comment in response to the benching was simple: “It just wasn’t his opportunity tonight.”
The reality is, to paraphrase former NFL coach Denny Green, Derrick Williams is who we thought he was. He was terrible in Minnesota and terrible with the Kings, and when the Knicks signed him everyone thought he’d continue to be terrible in New York.
Williams is a player who doesn’t do anything well. His range hasn’t translated form college to the NBA, he’s a poor rebounder and defender, and he’s probably a little too small to play power forward without the skills necessary to guard wings. When he signed the two-year contract, most fans probably hoped he was racking up DNPs on a nightly basis, reserving his minutes strictly for garbage time.
Still, that effort he brought to practice in training camp and in the preseason had a hand in shaping this team. The energy was contagious and can be seen both in the evolution of an offense that was glacially slow and lethargic a year ago, as well as a marked improvement in the individual defensive efforts from everyone.
Galloway will carry the torch in terms of bringing the energy on a nightly basis, and so far Grant doesn’t know how to do anything but play fast. Williams should keep seeing his minutes reduced as his production continues to fail to warrant any significant playing time. It’s not surprising that he’s been bad and that it’s become tough to justify playing him.
That being said, I do hope he keeps his head with the team and doesn’t mope about his new role. When the Knicks are in need of a shot in the arm during the grind of the season maybe – -just maybe — Williams will be the one who can give it to them.