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In Patrick Williams, the Bulls see the modern NBA

/ by Rob Schaefer
Presented By BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois
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As far as polarizing draft selections go, Patrick Williams is an easy one to fall in love with.

His frame looks chiseled from stone for the modern NBA. By the account of any and everyone who’s known him in his 19 years, he’s humble, hard-working and inquisitive. And, on top of it all, he -- rather nonchalantly -- does things like this:

But beyond the measurables, high motor and explosive athleticism, what do the Bulls see in Williams? As prototypically as his profile reads, what makes the Florida State forward’s game so tantalizing that Artūras Karnišovas and the rest of the Bulls’ new-look front office regime broke with convention and made their first high-stakes gamble by drafting him fourth overall in November’s NBA Draft?

There’s levels. Here's what the Bulls see in Williams:

More than a ‘raw athlete’

Williams is the youngest collegian in the 2020 draft class, having turned 19 in August. He’s toolsy as all hell, standing 6-foot-8 with a near 7-foot wingspan, and weighing in at 225 pounds -- a “physical specimen,” in the words of Karnišovas.

 

There’s a word that gets tossed around analysis for prospects that fit that surface-level synopsis: “Raw.” Karnišovas objected to that framing.

“I think his perception, I didn't agree with the perception people have of him. They thought he was a raw athlete, and he wasn't skilled,” he said. “When I saw his skill level and ball-handling and shooting and ability to pass, I would disagree that he's just a raw athlete.”

Williams’ offensive role at Florida State was confined mostly to spot-ups, cuts, transition leak-outs and second-chance opportunities off offensive rebounds. No, literally: Those four play-types ate up 76.5 percent of 294 offensive possessions as a freshman, according to Synergy Sports tracking data. FSU runs an egalitarian offensive system -- no player averaged more than 10 field goal attempts per game and their three leading scorers averaged 10.6, 11.6 and 12.7 points apiece. In it, Williams served mostly as a ball-mover and play-finisher.

Twenty-six times, though -- or, put another way, on 8.8 percent of his possessions -- Williams acted as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll, a context familiar to him from his high school days playing point guard before a growth spurt shot him up to combo-forward size. Those possessions, relative to play-type, were his most efficient; Williams produced 0.962 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, a 90th percentile mark. 

Embedded were some genuine flashes as a dribbler, passer (with touch and pace) and pull-up shooter -- the three tenets of pick-and-roll play. His feel is apparent:

Williams hit 35.6 percent of his 2-point jumpers last season, per Hoop-Math. Not knockdown (for context, his teammate Devin Vassell hit 43.1 percent), but something on which to build. And critics concerned by the set shot he deploys from 3-point range -- he hit 32 percent of those last season -- can be encouraged by the elevation and high release point.

In transition and drive-and-kick scenarios, Williams had moments as a facilitator too. The rub is that most of his advantage scenarios on the ball came against already-bent defenses, making the progression of his jump shot all the more crucial. Williams connected on 83.8 percent of his free throws as a freshman, which bodes well.

“His ball-handling is something that’s very underrated,” Karnišovas said. “People didn’t see it in college but for three years in high school he played point guard. I was very impressed.”

 

That sentiment, which pervaded Karnišovas’ initial comments after the draft, indicates Williams will get more of a chance to flex his shot-creation muscles at the next level, especially for a team that, per Karnišovas' publicly-stated philosophy, will value passing and multi-positional playmaking. Williams will clearly have immediate offensive utility as a slasher, but his potential as a secondary playmaker represents the deepest well of upside in his game. The definition of an offensive initiator is evolving by the day, and more than "wing depth" on its face, the Bulls are short on two-way wing playmakers, an archetype that's en vogue for many of the league's most successful franchises.

And, simply put, if the Bulls didn’t think such experimenting would be worthwhile, or that such skill within Williams couldn’t be tapped, they wouldn’t have spent a top-five pick on him. If the Bulls thought he was simply a “raw athlete,” the same logic applies.

‘What the NBA is today’

As long as we’re on themes, “versatility” was another prominent one in Karnišovas’ comments on Williams. 

Defensive versatility is what we liked. Long arms. Big hands. Such an upside and potential,” Karnišovas said. “This is what the NBA is today.”

In a way, Florida State ran a positionless defensive system. They switched most every screen, pressed with regularity and forged an identity on length and activity. Their 2019-20 roster collectively boasted the tallest average height in the nation, per KenPom, and played like it.

Williams was a pillar to that style. Some over-helps and untimely gambles dot the tape, but he lives with his hands up, eyes alert and mouth motoring, a true defensive playmaker. Williams logged 2.5 steals per 100 possessions (good for a solid 2.5% steal rate) last season, primarily on account of his off-ball activity, and his 2.6 blocks per 100 (5.6% block rate, downright gaudy) foreshadow plus rim-protection ability for a wing.

 

The Bulls envision him as a player that can plug, play and wreak havoc anywhere at the defensive end. Whether or not guarding four-to-five positions -- as Karnišovas, Williams and his college coach Leonard Hamilton have all publicly touted -- is a reasonable expectation remains to be seen. While exceptionally strong, and speedy on a straight line, Williams saw dartier guards and wings scurry past him at times -- though that aforementioned length and athleticism do help compensate.

Nevertheless, lineups with Williams at the 4 and Wendell Carter Jr. at the 5 should be stingy in time. If he pans out as a floor-spacer and secondary creator, configurations with Lauri Markkanen in Carter's place also hold intrigue, especially at the offensive end of the floor. Based on Williams and Karnišovas' comments, it appears he's going to get the chance to play everywhere and with everyone.

“Wherever they put me,” Williams said on draft night when asked his preferred position, an extension of his can-do attitude. And of his role: “Whether that's starting, playing big minutes or whether that's coming off the bench and providing a spark, or whether that's handing out Gatorade, you know what I mean, I'm just there to contribute.”

Those two items -- Williams’ position and role -- are for him and Billy Donovan to hammer out, according to Karnišovas (who said on draft night even he doesn't yet know what positions Williams is). But it’s evident that the Bulls are counting on the Seminoles’ shape-shifting style to prepare him for anything. It's no surprise that a player with his background appealed to Karnišovas.

RELATED: Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton pleased with Bulls fit for Patrick Williams

'Mindset'

ESPN tabbed Williams as the 28th-ranked high school recruit in the nation entering the 2019-20 season, yet the North Carolina native started 0 games in 29 appearances for Florida State (though, as Hamilton noted to our K.C. Johnson, “he finished them”).

 

The most impressive thing about Patrick was the mindset that he brought with him to Florida State,” Hamilton said before the draft (via Tomahawk Nation, FSU’s SB Nation site). “Obviously being a leader on his high school team, he had a pretty good reputation coming into Florida State. Most of the time that level of success will allow you to come in with maybe an air of confidence that you’ve accomplished something. That’s not what Patrick did...

“He was eager to learn… Pat would ask questions. That’s not a highly-recognized, brass, confident, cocky guy coming into a program. That’s a guy who was humble, attentive, and he immersed himself into the program. He wanted to be part of the success of the program, and not necessarily wanted to be the star of the program, he just wanted to help win.”

That’s music to the Bulls’ ears, especially given the crowded forward rotation Williams is stepping into in Chicago, and the ancillary components the team is hoping he’ll commit to adding to his game.

“It just taught me how to do your part. Whatever your part is, whether that's coming off the bench or whether that's starting,” Williams said of coming off the bench. “I started with maybe 12 minutes and then I think you see that I did well with that 12 minutes. And then toward the end of the season, those minutes increased. And I kind of just embraced that role. In the NBA, it's all about role. Everybody can't be a LeBron James from Day 1 or a Michael Jordan from Day 1.”

There’s evidence to support Williams’ claims of improvement and increased opportunity. After a toe injury sidelined him for two games in mid-January, he finished out the Seminoles’ 11-game stretch-run averaging 24.9 minutes, 11.1 points and 3.9 free-throw tries per game while shooting 38.9 percent from 3 (1.6 attempts) -- up from 21.1 minutes, 8.1 points and 1.7 free throws per and 28.1 percent from distance (1.8 attempts) in 18 games prior.

He logged his highest minute (32), second-highest point (17) and highest field goal attempt (14) totals of the season while at times acting as a zone-buster in a Feb. 15 win over Syracuse. He matched that minute total, stuffed the stat and finished out the final 17 minutes and 22 seconds of a comeback victory over Notre Dame on March 4.

 

“(We) Watched his improvement through the year from game to game, he became more aggressive, took more charge, attacked the basket more, shot the ball better,” Karnišovas said. “We watch a ton of interviews even prior to college. To get a player that just turned 19 in August to be that level of maturity at this point and willingness to learn, it’s hard to find. The more we studied Patrick, the more we liked him.”

Now, Williams faces an abbreviated NBA training camp and an undefined role when he arrives. 

“It’s going to be an adjustment, Karnišovas said of the transition. “But he’s the type of kid who’s ready to learn. He’s very inquisitive. He asks questions about what he can do better. And I saw huge growth over a very short period of time. So I’m not worried about that.”

Williams isn’t either. And the attributes Hamilton listed will serve him well.

“This year, for me and the rest of the rookies, is just gonna be about who asks questions, who learns the best,” Williams said. “When I get in Chicago I just wanna be around the guys as much as possible and just learn as much as I can.”

As he continues to apply himself, the Bulls hope his development will help them get with the times.

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