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Preseason All-Star Derrick Williams Looking to Turn His Career Around

Bryan Smith/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Derrick Williams is averaging better than 16 points per game in only 20 minutes in the preseason. He is putting up those numbers on 63% shooting from the field, 38% from deep, and 81% from the free throw line, per NBA.com.

It is only preseason basketball, but it is safe to say I was not expecting this. Nor was I expecting that within two weeks of the season opener, the New York media would already be wondering if that bust label was already in the process of getting dropped.

Marc Berman of the New York Post is asking that question, with the thinking that the Derek Fisher and the triangle offense will finally help him break out as an NBA player. He is also giving Williams some of the first positive remarks since he left Arizona and was selected second overall by the Timberwolves.

“The 6-foot-8 Williams, sporting a set of braids this fall, is the Knicks’ most athletic player, scoring in transition, on dunks and from 3-point range.”

Athletic? Scoring? Three-point range? This is not the Derrick Williams I have become accustomed to. I am accustomed to 9.3 points per game for bad teams in garbage time, and based off of last season it seemed like a good bet he would continue that tradition with the Knicks.

Phil Jackson cited his versatility when bringing Williams into the fold. One knock on him when he was drafted is that he was a tweener, not quite big enough for a power forward but not quick and athletic enough for a small forward. With the Knicks, Jackson hopes his malleable nature makes him a fit next to Carmelo Anthony, who also floats between the 3 and the 4.

Williams has come into camp in the “best shape of his life”–which is an infuriating thing athletes and those who write about them say all the time. However, he does look a little leaner and a little quicker than the player from the Kings, Timberwolves, and Wildcats. That should help him hold up at both forward positions, and while getting in shape won’t turn him into a passable defender, it can’t hurt.

But dunking and hitting threes and scoring in transition is an unexpected bonus. Could he actually keep this going into the regular season? Could he be the sixth man who carries the offense when Anthony hits the bench?

“I’m trying to be dynamic, man, and be all over the court,’’ said Williams. “That’s what Coach wants me to do. I take on the challenge of playing two, three spots and want to learn them and show how versatile I am. It’s really showing the first couple of games.’’

Versatility is something extremely useful in the NBA. The Warriors built their entire offensive system on it. The ability to score from the perimeter or from down low,  and more importantly the ability to defend multiple positions on the fly.

In college, Williams showed he can hit from deep at a high rate and was clearly a successful interior scorer at that level. That was part of the mystique that pushed him up draft boards. The inside scoring was something he struggled with in the NBA, which is predictable for almost all young players. What was a little more surprising to some is how his efficiency shooting from three would crater as a professional. He is barely above 30% for his career and is not enough of a threat from there to be considered a stretch four.

The bigger problem is the one that a few good preseason games still doesn’t answer. It doesn’t help much that he can play either the 3 or the 4 next to Melo if he can’t defend either the 3 or the 4 next to Melo. Anthony’s defensive issues are one thing, but as a future Hall of Famer that built his career on the ability to put the ball in the basket, he is not going to have the pressure to be a stopper on the defensive end. It is Jackson and Fisher who should feel the onus of surrounding him with a supporting cast that can provide good team defense around him.

The Knicks don’t have good options to put on the court at every position. Players who provide offensive production and defensive tenacity are few and far between. That is the reason even an improved team is still a long bet to make noise in the Eastern Conference. Still, at this point in the 24-year-old Williams’ career, just turning into a passable player who can provide solid minutes would give a huge boost to the Knicks.

No one expected him to break out in the preseason, and most would say that a few preseason games don’t carry much weight in terms of what the team will get from him during the season. Hopefully, for himself and the team, Williams will be able to use those performances as a starting point to turn around a career that was trending downward.

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