Drafted less than two months ago, and just six games into his professional career, Patrick Williams was saddled with the toughest defensive assignment an NBA coach can dole out Friday night:
Corral Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Yes, that Giannis Antetokounmpo. The two-time reigning MVP with impossible length, strength, and willing shooters galore surrounding him. A tall task, as evidenced by his freakish final line of 29 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals, two blocks and 18 charity stripe trips. Oh, and the Bucks’ 30-point margin of victory.
“My chest is on fire right now just from the shoulders that he gave me,” Williams cracked postgame.
Talk about a baptism by… Well, you know.
But to hear head coach Billy Donovan tell it, Williams took the assignment just as he has every challenge in his whirlwind NBA transition: In stride, and with even keel.
“He doesn't change,” Donovan said. “He doesn't really show too much. He listens. He studies. He tries to take in what we're doing gameplan-wise and what his job and responsibilities are.
“I'm sure internally inside of himself he's probably saying, like, ‘Wow, last year I was playing in college, the year before that I was in high school.’ So, listen, it's a lot for a young player to handle, for him to start and then night in, night out and the fatigue of playing these games in a short period of time, I mean it's probably a lot for him. But he's got to kind of get thrown to it, and he's gotta learn it and experience it. But his attitude and his disposition, whatever you put in front of him is always the same.”
Just don’t confuse level-headedness for aloofness. Thad Young, who well knows the challenges of defending star forwards, and Antetokounmpo specifically, said Williams picked his brain frequently in the run-up to the matchup. Standard practice for Williams.
“As soon as he got the assignment and the matchup, he started asking me all types of questions,” Young said, while also preaching Williams’ readiness to accept the challenge. “Just for the simple fact of we have Josh (Longstaff) on our staff, who came from Milwaukee. He knows that I know how to guard Giannis in lots of occasions and situations. He just told Pat, ‘Just go ask Thad. Thad could tell you everything about it.’ From me having that experience. So I just gave him all the knowledge I had and hopefully he continues to soak that up.”
Antetokounmpo presents a number of unsolvable riddles for the league’s best defenders, let alone a 19-year-old drafted 44 days ago. Still, Young delivered the full scout -- and a detailed one at that.
“A lot of it is team defense. Two is knowing (how to) navigate screens. I think that’s one of the biggest things. Giannis receives a lot of screens from his guards. So understanding that Giannis is not the best 3-point shooter in the world, navigating those screens and getting under and beating him on the other side, make him go back, twist the screen, go back the other way. Just understanding what angles to take and cutting him off,” Young said of the keys to guarding Antetokounmpo. “When he gets to a certain point, you have to impose your will on him. And then when he gets to the basket and he starts to spin, trying to catch that. Once you catch the first move, understanding that once you catch the spin, you can’t let him spin without the dribble. Because if he spins without the dribble that’s when you’re done. But if he uses the dribble to actually spin, and spins with an extra dribble, then you can body him up and force him to pass or force him to try to run through you. So just understanding who you’re guarding.
“We have this thing called ‘KYP’ -- Know Your Personnel. I’ve had that matchup plenty of time and have done a pretty good job of guarding him when I did get on him just because I understand the matchup. I understand what he wants to do. I understand his strengths and weaknesses. And Pat has to do the same thing, just study the personnel, study the guys and just understand strengths and weaknesses and make them play to their weaknesses and do something different than what they want to do.”
It’s a lot. And while Williams came prepared, there’s no substitute for the heat of battle. While Young, Donovan and Coby White agreed he fared well with the assignment, the results mostly befitted Antetokounmpo’s stature, from elastic-armed slams to bouncing Williams off his body on drives and post-ups.
“Film definitely helps, but there’s nothing like actually being out there with him, just taking those blows from him,” Williams said. “Just picking up as much as I can from him, how to use his body to get downhill, how to use angles, things like that. I was just blessed to be in this opportunity for sure. Of course we wanted to win the game, but now that we didn’t win, we can learn from it.”
That’s the key. Williams came to the NBA with the physical tools to blossom into a wing stopper. He’s displayed poise facing every hurdle the league has tossed in his path thus far. That’s a solid base to work from.
“His demeanor never changed. He never got rattled. He just stuck to the script. I thought he played well. He got thrown to the fire early. And I feel like he’s made for it. He’s built for it. He’s only going to continue to get better and grow from this,” said White. “Pat is, like, well-rounded. Everybody knows how special he is at both ends of the court. Learning experience, it was good for him to play against one of the best players in the league. Nothing but growth from it.”
Precious few maximize the traits it takes to reach the heights Williams desires. Those that do healthily internalize and apply lessons away from nights like that one.
Williams hopes to do just that. And get Antetokounmpo back on the next go-around.
“He (Antetokounmpo) doesn’t really compare to any other guy that I’ve had to guard yet this season. But the next time we play them, I hope to guard him again and do better,” Williams said. “Being able to guard somebody like that in my sixth game of the season, it means a lot. It means a lot that coach trusted me to guard him pretty much the entire game when I was out there. It shows the trust that he has in me and the trust that I have to have in myself. It means a lot for sure.
“I want to guard the best player every night. It’s just the person that I am. I want to be the guy that always guards the best person. So if I want to be that guy, I got to learn how to take the nights where I get, I think he had 30 handed to me, and learn from it. It’s just a blessing.