Forget a welcome to the NBA moment. Try a welcome to the NBA month. Or two.
Fifty one days after the Bulls selected him fourth overall in the 2020 draft, Patrick Williams is 10 starts, and two all-time defensive assignments, into his NBA career. First, in a Jan. 1 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, loomed Giannis Antetokounmpo.
On Friday, LeBron James represented the task at hand.
Williams opened the contest across from James, and, with Otto Porter Jr. departed after the first quarter with back spasms, closed the night defending him down the stretch. The Lakers star finished with 28 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
“I can’t really say much except I got better. I got better tonight as a defender, as a player. Just being around him, watching him, guarding him, I got better,” Williams said of defending James. “In the 10th game of the season, that’s all you can ask for. I took on the challenge.”
Challenge is right. In just over eight minutes matched up with Williams, per NBA.com’s tracking data, James scored 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting, dished three assists, drew three shooting fouls and committed three turnovers.
There was a whirling spin move that left Williams in the dust early on, an and-one lay-in through the rookie’s chest late in the fourth quarter, and countless, undefendable post fadeaways. There was also a Williams poke-away -- officially credited as a steal -- early in the third, and a forced airball on James with just over three minutes to play and the visitors trailing by five. Williams improved as the game wore on. James scored six points on 2-for-9 shooting in the final period.
Ultimately, the Bulls competed, but the Lakers prevailed. Even having faced him once, James came away impressed by the 19-year-old.
“I think he’s going to be an exceptional talent,” James said of Williams. “Long arms. He has Kawhi-type hands that I noticed out on the floor, so I knew I couldn’t play with the ball much. And you could tell that he’s just laser sharp on trying to get better and better.”
Williams swiped four steals in the game. His postgame comments centered precisely on what James alluded to second: Using the defensive assignment as a stepping stone.
“I can always do better. There were a couple plays early where he kind of was able to get to his spots. He was kind of too comfortable, and that led him to be more aggressive,” Williams said. “But like I said, it’s a learning experience 10 games. And we got at least 62 more.”
His on-court play befit his typical demeanor. Even-keeled.
“(He) Didn’t say much at all,” James said. “He just stayed sharp on the game plan. I think he’s going to continue to get better and better. Has a great in-between game. But if you notice his hands, though, he has, like I said, Kawhi-like hands. That’s gonna benefit him a lot throughout the course of this season, throughout the course of his career.”
So will the subtle lessons learned in matchups such as this one. After taking shoulders from Antetokounmpo, for example, Williams cracked that his “chest was on fire.”
Any lingering effects from James?
“Nah, not really,” Williams said. “I was able to kinda hold some resistance and not kinda take those shots in the chest like I was from Giannis. From Giannis I learned that kinda you can't lean on him. You can't really play with your chest, you gotta play with your hands to make him uncomfortable. I learned. And I learned from LeBron tonight. I got better tonight.”
While he said the ease with which James picks his spots and sets up teammates is something he immediately took away, Williams understands that the process of internalizing lessons from the matchup is only just beginning.
“I'll learn a lot more from the film and so will we as a team,” Williams said. “The film is really what we'll learn from, so I'm just ready to dive into that.”
Billy Donovan was pleased with the effort.
"I thought he did a great job competing. He really battled," Donovan said. "And he’s going to get better from a game like this."
Another potential test awaits Williams to close the road trip in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers. Then Jayston Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Boston Celtics in Chicago Tuesday.
The hits keep coming. But at every turn, Williams continues to impress. As James said, to cap his reflections on his first matchup with him:
“I think Chicago has a good one."