Sam Smith: Patrick Williams latest injury for shorthanded Bulls

DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević — paradoxically, the two oldest players on the roster — are the only remaining starters from that very promising 2021-22 Bulls debut.

And then Friday Patrick Williams was added to the season-ending surgery list with Zach LaVine, and in case anyone has forgotten Lonzo Ball, who hasn’t played in more than two years. Williams said Saturday before the Bulls left for Sunday’s game in New Orleans that he expected his season-ending surgery for an apparent stress fracture to occur the first week of March, a week after just days ago he believed he was going to return to the lineup.

But then came a followup report of an oblique line in another diagnostic test, and thus another crack in that Bulls grand foundation.

“Came back early from All-Star break, Saturday, ramped up Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, felt fine, felt pretty good; the pain was below a two out of 10, which was where we wanted to keep it,” Williams related about his left foot issues. “Wednesday morning was supposed to be a routine checkup just to see the progress the bone was making, if there were any changes or not. That night they called me and let me know they kind of saw a line in the navicular bone, which kind of meant it was a fracture there and kind of went from there. For me, it was kind frustrating because (here I am) I’m thinking I’m kind of ramping up and shooting at a date the end of this month to come back. And when you hear that it is kind of devastating.”

Talk about the latest bombshell.

Sports is fond of the military metaphors and analogies with all the foxholes and trenches, attacks, bombs, battles, arsenals and going to war. No one’s about to surrender, but this battle of attrition for the Bulls continues to bring into stark relief the waning possibilities for this group.

“I’ve always said you lose good players, it always hurts you, right? But it provides opportunities for other guys,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan hopefully, as usual. “We need some other guys to step up and play, and I think some of the younger guys have done a good job with the minutes they’ve been given. There is a balance as it relates to someone is going to get on a given night overextended. It’s going to be hard at times, certainly, based on lineups and matchups and with Torrey (Craig) being out (up to a month with a knee sprain) and Patrick being out, when you play against Zion (Williamson, Sunday), some of these bigger wing players, sometimes it’s going to push guys like Alex (Caruso) and some of these guys’ minutes up there. So we’ve just got to try to balance it as best we can.”

For the moment, though especially for the long term it’s a worrisome development even if Williams said he hopes to complete his recovery from surgery in July and have the summer to prepare for training camp in October. But it’s all more unclear now with Williams perhaps a restricted free agent this summer assuming the Bulls give him a qualifying offer after all the trade rumors and speculation regarding Zach LaVine, and the doubts about Ball.

That trio was in many respects the beating heart of the Bulls future and desires after that big Summer of ’21 roster remake with Vučević and DeRozan mostly for immediate, albeit short-term, veteran guidance. The core looked like the uber-athletic LaVine, who led the Bulls with 34 points in that opening night win that season on the way to his second straight All-Star game appearance, the flamboyant Ball with his open court magic and the powerful Williams with his steady long range shot and crushing defensive presence.

They’re all now not only lost for the rest of this season, though the Bulls have long known about Ball’s condition and limitations, but the absences also raise ongoing questions and concerns about pressing forward and with whom.

The Bulls and Williams couldn’t agree on a contract extension last fall, so he could be a restricted free agent this summer with an approximately $13 million qualifying offer. Could he get an offer coming off surgery? Would the Bulls match? There are so many new questions, though Williams Saturday was clear where he hopes to settle.

“I don’t think anybody knows what their future is, to be honest,” Williams said. “I would love to continue to be a Bull. I love it here. I love the opportunity we have to build culture, to build something special with this group and this team. I think I could really be a cornerstone piece for this team. But you never know what the future holds and I understand it’s a business. I love the team, I love the guys, I love the front office. For now, worry about the surgery and getting back playing and let the chips fall where they may. Nobody has really even talked about contract stuff. It’s more so about getting me back healthy, which I appreciate.

“No, not nervous (about the future),” said Williams. “I think I know what I showed when I was healthy this season. I think I know who I am as a player and what I’m capable of as a player. Nervous isn’t the word. I’m kind of excited to see what happens and to get back to playing.”

It’s awful timing, as if any can be good with surgery. But the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Williams in December finally began to look like the player the Bulls believed they saw when they made the then 18-year-old the No. 4 pick in the 2020 draft. He finishes the season averaging 10 points on 40% three-point shooting. But in that encouraging December run when the Bulls were 9-5, Williams averaged 14.1 points and shot 50% on threes, 52% overall with a steady 4.4 rebounds per game.

“It’s tough, obviously, you (media) said the way I played in December, kind of feeling that, being excited about that, feeling I‘m taking steps in the right direction and then this happens,” lamented Williams. “It is what it is, but….

“Obviously, we had a lot of injuries early this season, Zach out, Vooch missed a couple games, DeMar missed a couple games, T-Craig in and out, AC was in and out,” Williams noted. “So I think it opened a lot of opportunity for guys to be more on the ball. Me, Ayo (Dosunmu) and Coby (White), AC. It allowed us to kind of show what we can do. Kind of see how that felt to be more on the ball. A lot more pick-and-rolls in that span, a lot more closeouts in that span, a lot more DHOs (dribble handoff) and drags (screen in transition) in that span just because we’re down bodies. For me, it was super fun to develop that way, kind of know what it feels like to be out there and come back to practice and replicate that feeling and get lost in the progression of things. This injury, I don’t think it throws a wrench in it at all. I think it’s the same mindset. I know what it felt like. I know what it looked like. I can go back now and have those moments. I can go back to and recall and watch the film, (see) what I did well, what I didn’t do well. For me, it’s a shift in mindset, not a wrench in it.

“Definitely feel like (December) was stepping into who I am as a player, you know what I mean?” said Williams. “I was able to get every facet that I think I can into the game. I think there was another step or two I could’ve taken. That’s why I was so excited to get back this season, just knowing what we needed. Just watching the game and knowing what I can bring to the game, bring to the team. Obviously, that won’t happen this season. For me, it’s keeping that stride, not taking a step back. Going back and watching the film, know what it felt like, knowing those conversations. I think I learned a lot about how to talk the game, talk pick-and-roll coverages, what I see out there and trusting that. It came with experience. I think this season I got experience and that’s all you can ask for. I think I’m taking a step into being the player I can be.”

Which also raises perhaps the most significant question for the Bulls going forward.

They’ll measure the rest of this season and hope maybe the other guys have the injuries and they can remain in the fight, as it were, maybe get a few playoff breaks like Miami did last season, maybe it is what it is and all that.

But even if there is some good fortune, significant decisions figure to be made this summer.

And given the circumstances surrounding Ball, which seems apparent, and LaVine as well and DeRozan with his contract ending, perhaps it is time to finally accept that the magic of 2021-22 has run its course, there’s no rabbit in the hat anymore, and the trick is to make the current young core of the 22-year-old Williams, White and Dosunmu appear and begin to expand on that.

It was a heck of a turnaround in that 2021 summer with the acquisitions of Ball, Caruso and DeRozan.

Gone in an impressive restructuring were Ryan Arcidiacono, Cristiano Felicio, Daniel Gafford, Daniel Theis, Chandler Hutchison, Luke Kornet, Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter, Tomas Satoransky, Denzel Valentine and Thad Young, and there was the 6-1 start to the top of the Eastern Conference the Bulls rarely gave up for several months to where the coaching staff missed coaching the All-Star weekend by a game.

There was a four-game win streak, a pair of road losses and then nine straight wins to get to 26-10. Ball’s last game, which was supposed to be a return by the playoffs, was a blowout home loss to Golden State Jan. 14, 2020. The Bulls still were 27-13 afterward. Then even with Grayson Allen’s takedown that resulted in Caruso missing a month, the Bulls ran off six straight wins to reach their season apex at 39-21 coming out of the All-Star break. Then they lost five straight and eight of 10, but still staggered in with 46 wins and sixth in the East before a quick injury-aided playoff wipeout to the Bucks.

They hoped for Lonzo, and they hoped for Zach and DeMar to click, and they planned for Patrick, and not a whole lot has gone as planned. So maybe this will be their Dunkirk, the chance to save the troops. Not so much Napoleon’s Russian campaign as the Bulls version of Gettysburg, Saratoga in the American Revolution, Midway in World War II, a turning point more to be looked back on than realized now.

Williams, predictably, was composed as he spoke with reporters, probably for the last time this season as he heads into that lonely world of rehabilitation. Sangfroid, yet self-assured he was ready to march, head held high if perhaps with a halting limp for a bit.

“The thing that carries over is the mental toughness of it,” Williams related about missing much of the 2021-22 season with a wrist injury. “Knowing that you will get through it, the course you have going into rehab. Rehab is in a sense the same as the game: What you put into it you are going to get out of it. A lot of players sometimes when rehab doesn’t go their way sometimes it’s things you can’t control, but a lot of times when rehab doesn’t go the player’s way they didn’t put the necessary time and effort into it they needed to. And so for me, I know I will because that’s the focus now. That’s my 100% focus getting back on that court.

“I don’t kind of see it as good or bad,” said Williams. “There really is no good or bad in my mind. There’s really just what happens to you and how you choose to react to it. Looking forward to having the surgery, recovering and getting back on the court.”

And just what the Bulls will look like may mean as much or more than Williams’ journey.

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