There’s a human element to injuries, and let’s acknowledge that first.
After playing 71 of 72 games in a promising rookie season, Patrick Williams missed almost all of training camp with a severe ankle sprain and now will miss four to six months after he undergoes wrist surgery to repair torn ligaments suffered Thursday night.
“He has put a lot of work in over the summer. He really worked on his game and body and really came in motivated. To miss significant time is hard, especially for a young player. You want to establish yourself in this league,” Nikola Vučević said. “To get that taken away from you, it’s very difficult to deal with. We’re going to be there to support him and stay with him. Obviously, he’s a huge part of this team and the future of this team.”
And that’s the other element to injuries — the future. What will the Chicago Bulls do now that their starting power forward for an already undersized team is out? And how will this impact Williams moving forward?
Lean into small-ball
The Bulls face Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside when they play the Utah Jazz at the United Center on Saturday. Looming next week are two matchups with Joel Embiid. So it’s certainly possible that Tony Bradley was poised to re-enter the rotation anyway.
But long-term, Billy Donovan certainly sounded like a coach prepared to continue trying to wreak defensive havoc with a smaller lineup. The safe bet would be on Javonte Green reclaiming the starting power forward spot he held during preseason when Williams sat with his sprained ankle.
Past that, Derrick Jones Jr. could get a shot. Alize Johnson, who has been the backup center, could slide to his natural position of power forward. Donovan also has used four-guard lineups in which DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball or Alex Caruso are nominally playing power forward.
“It’s going to be a challenge; there’s no question about it,” Donovan said. “We’re a little bit smaller at that position. And we’ve played smaller there.
“And really to be honest, outside of Javonte and Patrick, the next guy at the position is either Lonzo or Alex, which I’ve elected to do and I like when those guys are out there and they’re tough and they’ve handled themselves well. We have got hurt rebounding-wise.”
Indeed, opponents have outrebounded the Bulls in the last three games, two by significant margins.
Donovan thought Ball held his own in post matchups against New York Knicks All-Star forward Julius Randle. And a big part of the Bulls’ 4-0 start came from the Bulls’ perimeter-oriented defensive attack, feasting on steals and transition opportunities.
So at least in the short term, or until management surveys its trade options, expect more small-ball. Remember that the Bulls own a $5 million trade exception from the Daniel Theis sign-and-trade transaction and have a 15th roster spot inherited by a player they can move off of in Matt Thomas.
From a micro standpoint, Donovan rued the injury for his second-year forward because Williams had just exhibited a five-minute stretch in which he put into place all the decisiveness that coaches and teammates have been begging for on a more regular basis dating to last season.
Midway through the second quarter, he attacked the rim, albeit to get his shot blocked by Taj Gibson. He hit two pull-up jumpers sandwiched around an impressive defensive rebound. Then, early in the third, he tried to dunk high and hard over a Mitchell Robinson contest, which turned into a flagrant foul.
“He was starting to do things physically that we were talking to him about: ‘When you got these angles and lanes, be aggressive,’” Donovan said. “He’s such an unselfish guy he was trying to figure out how to play off those other guys. When do I go? When should I pass? When should I reverse it? When do I stay aggressive? (Thursday) was a game he was doing it.”
From a macro standpoint, this injury robs Williams of another “normal season” of progression. Due to the pandemic, he didn’t have a Summer League his rookie year or a normal training camp.
Then, after a great summer in which he not only played a high-usage role in Summer League but practiced with the U.S. Select team against the Olympic team, he missed almost all of training camp with his ankle injury. And now this.
It’s a lot for a player who represents this management’s regime first acquisition as the fourth overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft. In Williams, management sees an elite, physical athlete who can emerge as a two-way force for years to come.
That may still happen. But his career path has taken a significant detour yet again.
“When you lose a guy like that who can physically guard a lot of different positions and who has the strength and size to deal with post-up players, it definitely hurts,” Donovan said.