Midway through his 22-minute long end-of-season press conference with reporters on Monday, Bulls forward Thad Young was asked to name an area in which the team must add or improve to take a step forward next season.
His response, which came without a second’s hesitation, was telling.
“We need Pat to continue to be aggressive,” Young said. “I think we have the pieces. I think we just need Pat to take his game to the next level.”
Williams’ development is perhaps the highest-stake storyline facing the Bulls as the page of the season turns. Two All-Stars are in the building in Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević — cause of optimism even for a team that fell short of play-in contention this season, much less playoff. But it cost two future first-round picks to acquire the latter, the first of which has a 79.7 percent chance of conveying to the Orlando Magic after this June’s draft lottery. The avenues to externally improve are complex, at best, and limited, at worst.
That squares the spotlight on Williams, who, barring a seismic-splash move this summer, must become a viable third musketeer to LaVine and Vučević for the Bulls to reach their ceiling.
“This is my first season so everything was pretty much new,” Williams said. “Now that I have the gist of what the NBA is about, to have that in my mind and that experience going into the summer, is going to be huge for me and for this team.”
The zoomed out view of Williams’ first NBA season is impressive. Without Summer League or a full offseason, the 19-year-old started all 71 of the games in which he appeared — first on the team and a point of personal pride. He accepted (and says he learned from) defensive assignments against top-tier scoring options of every stripe, painting the specter of a potential wing stopper. He gained experience in a variety of different, new-to-him offensive contexts: Running pick-and-roll, pushing in transition, spotting up and cutting off the ball.
“I don’t think there’s a player on the team that was asked to do more than Patrick,” said Bulls executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas. “He guarded always the best player on the other team. And defensively, he was actually switching and playing different coverages, different positions. When you do pick-and-roll coverages (acting) as a primary defender and then as a big defender, there was a lot flying at him. I think he’s a very unique case.
“Usually when you get a young player, you build his arsenal. You add certain things to his skill set. Pat has a lot of those skills. It’s just when he is going to choose to use them.”
And therein lies the conundrum. One can well be encouraged by Williams’ 39.8 percent accuracy rate on catch-and-shoot triples and 43.4 percent mark on pull-up 2s, highlight-reel finishes on select dives to the rim, and, of course, the flashes of defensive freakiness, including but not limited to this mid-air rejection of a Deandre Ayton alley-oop attempt.
But he also finished the season seventh among current Bulls in shot attempts per game (7.4) and with a 14.9 percent usage rate that ranked 107th of 121 players that averaged at least 25 minutes, according to Basketball Reference, despite consistent coaxing from Billy Donovan and his teammates.
Young put it best, discussing the process of Williams learning his powers.
“The things that we think Pat does is incredible, and he doesn't know that he's doing incredible stuff out there,” Young said. “Like I think the block this year on — what was it, Deandre Ayton or whatever, in Phoenix? — like we thought that was one of the most amazing blocks ever. And he was like, 'Was it?' And I was like 'Yeah.’
“He's just one of those guys that he has so many physical tools that it's just all natural to him, and I think that's the fun part about having somebody like Pat. And that's I think what's gonna make him into a monster because he's doing stuff now that he's already physically gifted to do. When he gets that killer mindset in him, it's gonna be trouble for a lot of people.”
The Bulls hope that instinct can develop, though for a player who hasn’t been a featured scoring option at any stage of his basketball life, it will take time and intention.
But what should this critical offseason entail? Summer League, for one, as Williams confirmed in his end-of-season comments. Zach LaVine has extended an invitation for him and Coby White to work out. Williams also said he’ll focus on skill work coming off of ball-screens and handoffs.
Young’s advice was to continue establishing a personal dietary and fitness regimen, which Donovan preached all season. He also issued a challenge, using Williams’ last game of the season — an 11-point outing against the Milwaukee Bucks’ end-of-bench mob in which, one game after scoring a career-high 24 against the Nets, he got up just eight shots — as a teaching moment.
“I asked him [Sunday] night, ‘Do you want to be great?’ He said ‘Yes I do want to be great.’ He asked ‘What do I need to do to be great?’” Young said. “I said in games like this (against the Bucks) you have Zach and Vooch out. So this is your shot. You have to believe that. So when they put a guy like Jeff Teague or any guard on you, you should be, I shouldn’t have to say ‘Oh, we’ve got a mismatch.’ You should be calling your own mismatch out and you should be taking advantage of that and being aggressive.
“If you want to be great, that’s what the great players do. They impose their will on the game at all points in the game, and he has to do that a little bit more than he’s done this season. I understand it’s his first year. But he’s shown us and the Bulls fans so much in this first year of what he can be to the point where his standards should be set even higher next year, and he should want to be a top two or three guy on this team next year.”
If there’s a bright spot heading into the offseason, it’s that Williams appears to have taken that sentiment to heart.
“I really think I can be as good as I want to be,” Williams said. “The size, the strength, the athleticism, I pretty much have it all. For me it’s more mental than anything. I have to learn how to control my mentality and to really dial in 100 percent mentally, and I think that will make me the player that I want to be and that I need to be.
“I want to be known as one of the greats in this league for sure. I think I have all the tools I need to be able to do that. You know, skill, athleticism, pretty much everything that I need, and then also when you have a coaching staff, a front office and good teammates that have your back, I mean I have everything on my side. It’s just up to me to put the work in each and every day, and focus in on the goal at hand. Just be as good as I want to be.
“The ball is in my court for sure. I definitely want to be great in this league. I was talking to Thad [Sunday] honestly about just how good I can be in this league, and he kind of told me I can be as good as I want to be. I just got to be more aggressive and take it into mind that I have everything I need.’’
That should be music to the ears of Bulls fans, executives, coaches and teammates alike. The question is: Will it crescendo?