Patrick Williams wanted to talk.
The Chicago Bulls had just dropped their Summer League opener in uninspiring fashion, a 94-77 defeat to the New Orleans Pelicans. In the first half, Williams had been a dominant presence, racking up 14 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists as the Bulls built a three-point advantage. But the Pelicans blitzed them by 20 points in the final 20 minutes, and Williams disappeared, shooting 0-for-7 from the field and committing 3 turnovers in the second half.
With that as background, Bulls Summer League head coach Damian Cotter received a knock on his door after a team meeting.
“He was really assertive about trying to take over leadership. He really wanted to step up," Cotter said of Williams. "He was looking for a conversation. He sought out (Bulls assistant coach) Mo Cheeks as well.
"Pat, even though he's got a sort of a stoic, quiet demeanor, he's always looking to improve his knowledge. And in this case, directly, it was related to being a better leader — maybe not so much in verbalizing, but in action."
Williams’ response in game two was one of many positive takeaways the Bulls gleaned from his first Summer League showing. The second-year forward tallied 30 points in a 22-point comeback victory over the Spurs just one day after the Pelicans contest, and did his most meaningful damage as the game wore on, scoring 18 of his 30 points in the second half and delivering three game-sealing buckets in the final 91 seconds.
“I thought that was a really good example of his maturity,” Cotter said of the San Antonio game. “He really lifted us on his shoulders. We called his number a few times in the post and he executed in crunch time.”
Williams has said multiple times that adopting a score-first mentality doesn’t come naturally to him. So while the Bulls gave him clear, technical directives at the start of Summer League — chiefly, making quick and aggressive decisions on catches and crashing the offensive glass, Cotter said — there were more abstract goals laid out for him too.
“The message for me — and this is the big thing for me in the role that I've been as a development coach — young players have to 'back themselves,'” Cotter said. “It's not a phrase you guys use, but it's just (being) willing to put yourself out there and make decisions with confidence.
“You don't want to be reckless, but you want to be confident. And that's where I was really happy with Pat. Because I didn't think he was selfish, he got his shots in the realm of where we were as a team and that was needed.”
The actual Bulls won’t need Williams to do as much heavy lifting, especially with the free-agency additions of DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball.
But the virtues of leaning into a ball-dominant shot-creator role in a low-stakes environment are plain as day. Williams averaged 19.3 field goal attempts over his three-game Summer League run (5.3 more than his single-game career-high of 14 in the NBA), with Cotter noting being particularly pleased with his improvements as a post player, offensive rebounder and confident catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter.
“What impressed me was his willingness to try anything that we asked him. To look at any challenge that we set for him, and he tried to fulfill anything we asked,” Cotter said. “I think Coach Donovan's got some good ideas now of how to use him. Our roster's changed dramatically to what we thought it would be two weeks ago. He (Williams) understands he's gotta learn to play fast, to get out in the open court, which he was trying to do even though he had the ball in his hands more.”
Williams, who turns 20 on Aug. 26, averaged 21 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists, shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range (5.3 attempts per game) in Summer League. Playing 34.3 minutes per game, he was at the center of the Bulls’ offensive attack in both the halfcourt and running off of defensive rebounds in transition.
That 3-point percentage, Cotter noted, comes on the back of an offseason of refining his mechanics — particularly his “base and balance.” After one year as head coach of the organization’s G League affiliate (and years of prior developmental coaching experience in the G League and his native Australia) Cotter was promoted to Billy Donovan’s coaching staff, where he is in charge of player development, before the start of last season.
“As a program we've worked on it,” Cotter said of Williams’ jump shot. “He's put time in. The big thing is just getting more rhythm and having a more sound base at the start of his shot so he can maintain that rhythm on his release, because the ball comes out of his hand pretty good.”
On the negative side was 37.9 percent shooting from the field and 4.7 turnovers per game, the latter a point Williams opined. But that’s the beauty of the Summer League experience, which, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams missed his rookie year: It allows you to experiment in a wide variety of situations, with a primary emphasis on learning as opposed to winning at all costs.
“He's gotta keep working on his conditioning. He's gotta keep working on his basic skill set. I think he's gotten stronger over the summer, he's done a good job of that,” Cotter said of improvement areas for Williams moving forward. “I feel that his decision-making will develop as his skills develop and he develops more confidence, he tries more things. That has to happen.
“But now he's sort of, he's got a taste of what leadership is like. And he's got something that he knows, intellectually, he can work through.”
Even though Williams’ second-year NBA role won’t remotely resemble his Summer League one, that taste of leadership is exactly what the Bulls were hoping to deliver him. The benefits are multi-pronged.
“I think when you have those responsibilities, and they're not your day-to-day and then it gets thrusted upon you, he now understands what Zach goes through for example. That's gonna help him be a better teammate to Zach, and a better teammate for the Bulls in general,” Cotter said. “So I think there’s that.
“The other thing too: We have high, lofty ambitions for Pat — and, alright, there's a little taste of it, mate. And we'll see as he matures over the next few years, because he's still a young fella and he's displayed an acumen that he might be able to do this. Even though it's Summer League, he stepped up when it was needed, which was really encouraging.”