Rookie Patrick Williams has already proven to be steady and capable when defending the best stars in the game.
Maybe they didn't have cable TV where Patrick Williams came from. When the Bulls played the Milwaukee Bucks, coach Billy Donovan told Williams he's got two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. When the Bulls played the Los Angeles Lakers, Donovan looked toward Williams. That's right, four-time MVP LeBron James. Take him. And then Sunday when the Bulls concluded their Western Conference road trip, there was Williams defending two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Williams shrugged. Just gettin' to work.
"Coach says, ‘All right, you got LeBron today or you got Giannis," LaVine recalled recently with a laugh. He's like, ‘OK.' You don't see any shyness or laughing about it. It's like, ‘OK.'
"His demeanor isn't something to back down from anybody," marveled LaVine, the Bulls veteran high scorer. "Get too high or too low; he just answers the call."
There's been much to like and admire in this young Bulls season even if the 4-7 record doesn't exactly represent how the team has competed since opening week.
LaVine has scored among the game's elite, top five in the league at 27.7. Coby White averaging 17.3 points has had games with career highs in scoring, assists and rebounds. Wendell Carter Jr. with a recent surge is averaging a career high in points. Garrett Temple is proving to be one of the most underrated free agent signings, and the Bulls bench has been a regular boost. Though perhaps the most unusual aspect of this Bulls season that continues in Oklahoma City Friday is the defensive demands for a 19-year-old rookie. It's not likely anyone charts that kind of thing, but it's rare on a team with veteran defenders like Temple and Thad Young that Williams would be selected for the most important defensive assignment every game.
Williams, basically without double teaming help, has defended Giannis, LeBron and Kawhi. And though the Bulls lost all three games and it's not like the trio were defused, Williams has taken on the assignments with enthusiasm, or as much as he'll ever show, and even posted a career high 17 points in Sunday's narrow loss to the Clippers.
Patrick Williams dropped a new career high of 17 points against the Clippers
Though we always default to comparing a favorite young player to the elite, it seems it's not only the media this time. Nicholas Batum after the Clippers game said Williams reminded him of a young Leonard, and James similarly noted Williams' large hands and smooth moves like Leonard's.
Which predictably elicited from the taciturn Williams sort of an aw shucks.
"I think a lot of guys know this, but that was my favorite player," said Williams, who did seem to have cable. "I watched a lot of film. I learned everything from him, really, from the mid-post, kinda how even when he wasn't involved in the play he was telling guys where to be, things like that. Defensively how to use your hands and your arms to get deflections, get steals. That translates to teammates.
"I definitely see the potential that I have to be a player like him," said Williams. "A two-way player that can get stops and then also be a reliable offensive talent. I talk a lot about being a two-way player and he's kinda the model of a great two-way player. So I definitely look up to him and his game and it was just a blessing to be out there and play against him."
LaVine has been the star of the Bulls young season that now has one postponement with Tuesday's game against Boston and a half dozen Covid absences with Lauri Markanen and Ryan Arcidiacono due back Friday. Chandler Hutchison and Tomas Satoransky remain out with the virus. Noah Vonleh tested positive in training camp and was later released and Temple was held out early because he had the virus. White continues to be on the verge of a further breakout in a high scoring tandem with LaVine. Though the modest Williams could be the one who evolves into an anchor for the franchise with his defensive grit and smooth offensive game.
"It's just reps, just reps,' Williams said about improving his offense. "It's different. Now you got guys really jumping at you, so I just think the longer the season goes the more comfortable I get, the better I'll get with it. Then I've got guys that love to after practice shoot with me. Pretty much all the guys I shoot with give me tips. I was talking to GT (Temple) and I kinda take like a rhythm dribble. He told me you don't have time for that and you've got to get up a lot of shots just catch and shoot, quick release. So that definitely helped. I think as the season goes on, not only me but the rest of the guys, will shoot better as we get more reps."
Though Williams is pretty impressive already.
He's got a fluid mid range shooting game that has expanded to three-point range. Remember, this was a player who never even started a game his one season in college and who entered the NBA just after his 19th birthday.
Williams made six of 11 threes on the road trip, and for the season is shooting 46 percent on three pointers, which is third among rookies. He's probably not a Rookie of the Year contender because he's somewhat less heralded than LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman and Tyrese Haliburton. Williams is seventh among rookies in scoring at 10.3 and third in minutes played at 26.5 per game starting.
Leonard, by the way, finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting his first season when Kyrie Irving had 117 of the 120 first place votes. Ricky Rubio was second and Kenneth Faried third.
It's always speculative to make those kind of comparisons of a rookie to one of the elite stars of the game.
Though the 6-8 225-point Williams has striking similarities to the 6-7 225-pound Leonard even beyond the enormous hands and soft shooting touch. Though Leonard didn't develop nearly as much shooting range until several years into his NBA career.
Both appear phlegmatic on the court and have uncommonly stoic personalities, though Williams is more personable. Williams mimics Leonard's defense first and then offense approach to the game without the animated narcissism often associated with today's sports achievements.
It seems to stand out as and is admired among his teammates.
"His demeanor never changes," said Coby White earlier this season. "He never got rattled (defending MVPs). He just stuck to the script. I feel like he's made for it. He's built for it. Pat is well-rounded. Everybody knows how special he is at both ends of the court."
It even suggests a player the deliberate Arturas Karnisovas could picture building the Bulls around even with the presence of LaVine, White and Lauri Markkanen.
The Bulls new executive vice-president of basketball operations comes from the Denver Nuggets, where they added to their core judiciously over several years to build a contending team without any substantial free agent additions. Williams was thought by some a surprising draft choice at No. 4 considering his lack of offensive production in college.
Leonard, by the way—uh oh, here we go again—was a similarly modest scorer in college, averaging 14.1 points in two seasons at Mountain West Conference San Diego State.
Karnisovas has hinted at preferring two-way players who can defend their position and score, which is not common in the NBA even among its top stars. Players like Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry are regarded as poor defenders. Defaulting toward players like Williams could produce a unique NBA brand of basketball that might not be as aesthetically pleasing if perhaps just as effective. When the Bulls were at their championship best, sure they featured scoring champion Michael Jordan. But it was the defense with double digit scorers like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant that made the difference between excellent and excellence.
With Patrick Williams that could just be the start for the Bulls.
"Part of the reason (Leonard) was my favorite player was because I did see a lot of similarities," Williams admitted after the Clippers game. "I tried to pick up on things he does. I've been trying to do that since high school. In my year in college, I tried to do it even more. Coming into the game (against Leonard), it wasn't any jitters or anything. He was just another guy that I had to guard. But for sure probably on the plane ride back I'll probably start thinking, ‘Man, I really played against Kawhi Leonard, a guy that I've seen on film for so many years.' Same thing with LeBron. Coming into the game it was just, ‘I've got to guard LeBron.' But after the game, it was time to sit back and reflect on where I am and the journey to get here. It's been a blessing, for sure, but I haven't even really thought about him as ‘The Kawhi Leonard' yet. Just another guy I had to guard."
Just another guy he has to guard. You have to love that, especially because it's sincere.
"In this league," said Williams, "I want to be a really good two-way player, a guy that can really guard the best guys every night. That's the challenge."
Just the stuff guys like Kawhi said when they came to the NBA. OK, stop it!