It's a long way to Rookie of the Year. Patrick Williams Friday took the first giant step toward that honor as the unofficial Rookie of the Night as the NBA began exhibition game play for the 2020-21 season.
The Bulls top draft pick, preternaturally poised, calm and confident in his first NBA experience, was a rare bright light in a dark opening night for a Bulls team that never led, trailed by at least double digits after the first five minutes and by as much as 32 and lost to the Houston Rockets without James Harden 125-104.
Coby White with 15 points and Lauri Markkanen with 13 were the Bulls lead scorers, though both played poorly and didn't score much until the Bulls were trailing by more than 20. Williams, despite not turning 20 until after this season, was the team's best player with a seemingly unaccountable equanimity belying his age and experience. He floated between defenders for short jump shots with a picturesque stroke and even defended the blur that still is John Wall after he was out injured two years and traded recently for Russell Westbrook.
Wall with 13 points and nine assists and fellow recovering enigma DeMarcus Cousins with 14 points shocked the Bulls starters to a 14-2 deficit and it never was much of a competition after that. The Rockets made 24 of 52 threes against a stolid and slow-to-react Bulls defense. The Bulls made 11 threes. Bruno Caboclo, famously described as two years away from being two years away by analyst Fran Fraschilla on the 2014 draft broadcast, led Houston with 17 points and five of eight threes. Eric Gordon had 16 points.
Zach LaVine and Noah Vonleh each had 12 points for the Bulls along with Williams. Around the NBA, the Knicks Obi Toppin had 11 points as the best of the other lottery standouts while Killian Hayes had five points and seven turnovers and Tyrese Haliburton had five points. Top picks Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball are expected to play Saturday. James Wiseman is out with Covid.
Patrick Williams scores 12 points in NBA debut
Patrick Williams is in. And the Bulls have to be grateful.
"I think he's got a chance to be a really good player," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "He has a really good feel for the game. He very rarely forces shots, he makes good decisions, he's a good passer. He is really good when he gets into that elbow, paint area where he can shoot those one-handed lean-in shots. I'm sure he was a little anxious and nervous, but he's got a good pace and good way he plays and he can get into the mid range. I thought he played very well considering the fact that there was no real Summer League or build up to training camp, and he had to come here after the draft and get started. He did a really nice job."
Not so much many of the rest of the players other than LaVine, who seemed to be waiting for others to get started and then began scoring once the deficit expanded early. Though he was playing amidst large deficits, Tomas Satoransky looked lively with 11 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He's going to make a case to start at point guard with his ball movement comfort.
White rated his play three on a 10 scale, and he looked haltingly tentative like the first half of last season as he sought to find the playmaker's role that Donovan is embracing. Donovan talked in the brief training camp about judging White on how others play and emphasizing passing. Yes, we have to use the "just one game" thing for awhile. But White looked uncertain until he began looking for the basket on scoring plays. Then he was dynamic, though trailing by 25 at the time makes it difficult to judge. Donovan tried Markkanen in various movement actions, but it wasn't until Markkanen made a few catch-and-shoot threes in the third quarter that Markkanen much dented the scoreboard. Markkanen again got pushed out of the paint. Donovan tried to engage him further with the opening play of the second half, but it failed.
It was a work in progress game as Wendell Carter Jr. worked on his three, missing all five and shooting one of seven. Donovan, though, said Carter should have attempted 10 threes. No player ever really had a bad day that Donovan saw.
Though he did fault Carter (and others) for failing to recognize switches and not taking advantage of mismatches. Otto Porter Jr. who with Carter sat out after halftime, looked somewhat sluggish and had nine points. Porter was the starters' plus/minus leader at minus-18. Denzel Valentine, Garrett Temple and Thad Young were out with injuries and illness.
Though Donovan was buoyed, if not by the results, but by the test such a defeat should engender for the return game Sunday again in the United Center without any fans because of the pandemic. Billy sees his basketball like his eggs, sunny side up.
"The first thing is going into the game with no preparation at all and just trying to play kind of a base defense (without scouting or playing to opponent tendencies) certainly didn't really help our group," Donovan acknowledged. "Giving up 24 threes and some of that stuff, we did not adjust at all because we were just trying to stay with what we were doing. The thing that I thought we really need to improve upon were way too many drives to the basket uncontested. We didn't provide enough help, we didn't shrink the floor enough. I thought Coby in that first quarter probably started a little bit slow. I think he was trying to find his way. I think when he came back in the second quarter he played certainly more comfortable and better. It's really the first time they played in a while (with no summer games in Orlando) and I sensed a level of them being anxious and wanting to play well and wanting to do well, but even the first possession John Wall just crossed over, went right downhill and took a layup; there was no help."
And then Donovan really got paradoxically happy.
"I think this was really good for us because we got our ass kicked in a lot of ways, which was good," Donovan explained. "I think it gives us a point of reference from the standpoint of the things we've got to focus on and where we've got to get better in terms of playing someone else. Like you've got to block out every game, you've got to get back in transition, you've got to communicate, you've got to guard the ball, provide help. We just did not do a good enough job and react well enough in those situations. In fairness to our guys, we've had four days of contact practices, two non contacts, and we're playing. That's not an excuse, and it gives us something else we can look at and we can try to improve upon.''
No one wanted to mention Houston was on the same schedule and playing without its best player and two starters who weren't even expected to be in the NBA this season. And in cold weather, though the game was inside.
"We dug ourselves a hole in that first half, and I don't know what it was but they had an enormous amount of points they converted off our turnovers," Donovan noted of 20 led by Markkanen's four. "The turnovers killed us as far as getting into any rhythm or flow, and a lot of that was the moving and cutting. Listen, the more ball movement you have, the more cutting you have, the more you do that, you're going to make yourself susceptible to turnovers."
Which should give Donovan plenty of film to examine and questions to answer about this group.
White's a huge talent, but at point guard? He again looked mechanical until he went into shooting mode. LaVine among the starters looked like the only one who could get his shot and score when needed. Carter reiterated he remained confident and knows he's a good shooter, but where will the team shooting come from to match all these three-point arsenals?
Though Mike D'Antoni and Daryl Morey are gone, the Rockets remain three point mad bombers. It's an identity. Donovan wants to create one for the Bulls, but can these players perform the passing and moving legerdemain that Donovan envisions? Though that sort of personnel analysis seems the goal for the new management.
And Williams with that unusually thick 6-8 body for a draft pick seems to fit more comfortably along the front line and not out on the wing as a small forward. But that he did fit in right away looks like a draft coup for the new team.
"I think I played OK," said the soft spoken and modest Williams. "Now we have film that we can watch and things we can get better at. So it was definitely helpful. Everybody on the bench, the vets, the guys that have been there, they just kept telling me to be aggressive, look for my spots, take open shots. Listening to them and relying on them, seeing those spots and things like that definitely opened up the game for me, but my teammates as well."
Williams said the usual rookie stuff about the game being fast, but it didn't appear so the way he played, taking his time settling into shots and floaters with elan and a deft, baby's bottom soft touch. He didn't rush, and perhaps needs to shoot more, which was a criticism in college, that he was too deferential.
"A lot of thoughts," Williams said about his first pro game. "You don't know what to do, don't know what to expect. So just trying to calm myself down, whether it's listening to music or just trying to take my mind off of the next day. I went to sleep really early because I wanted to calm down."
Talk about being relaxed for your NBA debut. He's the natural.