Patrick Williams makes his long-awaited return to the Chicago Bulls' lineup Monday against the Toronto Raptors. It's a thrilling proposition for the second-year forward, who has been sidelined since Oct. 28 after an in-air collision with Knicks center Mitchell Robinson left torn ligaments in his left wrist that required surgery to repair.
"It's been exciting, just knowing that you get the chance to play the game that you love that you haven’t played for a while, a long, long time," Williams told reporters after the team's Monday morning shootaround. "I can't even fathom that I’ve been out five months already."
But, at the same time, Williams knows his return isn't likely to be seamless. The 20-year-old was still finding his footing in the NBA even before the traumatic injury and length rehab process, after all, and now re-joins an almost completely new team than the one he started 71 games for as a rookie.
"You come back and everybody has a perfect idea of what it looks like when you come back. Everybody wants to score 30 (points) in that first game back, but realistically, that's just not realistic," Williams said. "So I’m just taking one day at a time. Not getting too high, not getting too low. Just kind of keeping it day by day and just roll with the punches."
Head coach Billy Donovan has struck a similar note in recent weeks, saying he prefers to ease Williams back into the fray in an off-the-bench role when he returns. Asked generally about his role down the stretch, Williams said it's hard to say exactly what he'll be asked to do until he conquers "Step One" — returning to game action and shaking off the jitters.
But if wasn't clear from the team-first approach Williams has espoused since entering the league — or the fact that, as a highly-touted recruit, he came off the bench his entire freshman year at Florida State to the tune of ACC Sixth Man of the Year honors — he's up for anything.
"I’m fine with it, as long as I can contribute to the team," Williams said when asked about the possibility of coming off the bench. "After being out for five months, you only have one wish and that’s to play again. When you’re playing, you have 100 different wishes — ‘I wish I could have made this shot. I wish I could have did this better. I wish I could have did that better.’ — but when you’re out, you just have one wish and that’s to play again."
Williams has started all five of his appearances this season at power forward. Assimilating to a new, star-studded roster after losing most of training camp to an ankle sprain, he struggled to averages of 6.6 points and 2.2 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. It won't be any easier this time around.
"I think you have to look at it kind of like a big picture. This is my second year. I plan on being in this league for a long time. Sitting out for five months, I may not be able to show everything. But just help the team win in any way (I can)," Williams said of the balance between asserting himself and fitting into the team construct. "I think winning takes care of everything. If we win, everybody’s happy. No matter how many points you scored, no matter how many minutes you played, everybody’s happy. If you get a ring, everybody gets a ring.
"I think it’s just taking that approach, knowing that my second year isn’t a normal second year. My first year wasn’t a normal first year. Just rolling with the punches. Not getting too high, not getting too low. Knowing that I’ll be here for a while. I’ll have a chance to prove myself and show what I can do."
And for the Bulls, the stakes are high. Twelve games remain in the regular season, and the team is at its nadir, having lost eight of their last 10 games and fallen to fifth in the Eastern Conference — two games out of fourth (and home court advantage in a first-round series), 1.5 games from the play-in. Williams makes his return for an important matchup with the seventh-seeded Raptors, who are snapping at Chicago's heels.
Whatever role Williams ends up playing, he possesses traits that can help this team right the ship. His size, athleticism and defensive versatility would be welcome anywhere on the court for a team that ranks 22nd in defensive rating since Christmas, but especially at power forward, where Javonte Green, Derrick Jones Jr., DeMar DeRozan and even Alex Caruso have shouldered a heavy load.
In that pressure, Williams says, lies opportunity. And an exhilarating one at that.
"I love it, honestly. Every possession matters. Every rebound matters. Every steal matters. Everything matters," he said. "Coming in at this time, I love it, honestly, just because it's a challenge. It’s a challenge for us. It’s a challenge for me. It’s a challenge for our team. And we'll see what we’re made of.
"I love coming back at this time. Of course I wish I could have played throughout the whole season. But this time, crunch time, is exciting for the whole league."