Once a dirty word, now Derrick Williams hopes ‘tweener’ status gets him back to NBA

Derek Willis went to training camp with the Pistons last season, played with their G League affiliate in Grand Rapids and was back for a free-agent minicamp last week.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – When Derrick Williams came out of Arizona after rocketing to national attention with a dynamic NCAA tournament, there was one overriding question about his NBA future: his position.

Was he a small forward or was he a power forward?

“I still get that question today,” Williams said Wednesday after participating in a free-agent minicamp the Pistons held for 18 players.

But he probably doesn’t get it nearly as much because the NBA has undergone a radical transformation since Williams was the No. 2 pick of Minnesota seven years ago. Williams used the word that often was employed to describe him in the weeks leading to the 2011 draft: tweener.

Now it’s a coveted commodity, so long as it means the ability to switch rather than fighting through screens to limit openings for 3-point shooters. Back when Williams was fighting for a role with the Timberwolves, “tweener” status was a liability. At least it was for some.

“I think that’s the reason why myself and Rick Adelman got into it when I was a rookie and a sophomore,” Williams said. “We didn’t really see eye to eye. He was a typical, old-school style coach and that’s the reason why I really wasn’t playing – the tweener thing. We had (Kevin Love). Me and Mike Beasley were in the same spot. But things happen and you live and learn and the tweener is the game now. I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”

Williams has spent time with six teams in his seven years in the NBA. His best statistical season came in year two with the Timberwolves when he started 66 games and averaged 12.0 points and 5.5 rebounds. Williams landed with Cleveland late last season after Miami waived him and got to the NBA Finals with the Cavs, the only season of his career that ended in the playoffs.

The only other former first-rounder to participate in the Pistons minicamp was John Jenkins, the No. 23 pick by Atlanta in 2012. Diamond Stone, co-Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin in 2015 with Pistons forward Henry Ellenson, played in seven games with the Clippers in 2016-17 after being the 40th pick following his freshman season at Maryland. Guard Jordan McRae, the 58th overall pick in 2015, played for three franchises but was out of the league last season.

But Williams was easily the most credentialed player to participate in the Pistons camp, a situation that would appear a humbling experience to a player who’s earned nearly $31 million over his career.

“It’s just part of the process,” Williams said. “I’ve never heard of some of these guys. It’s nothing against them; they probably haven’t seen me before. But it’s good to be kind of all in a bunch and get back to the basics. That’s why I’m here. I don’t care who’s out there on the court. I’m not focused on them. I’m focused on me and what I have to do to get back into the spot I know I can be.”

Williams never shot the 3-pointer very well during his time in the NBA – and that’s the other radical change over his time since leaving Arizona. Teams might be less concerned whether he’s a three or a four these days, but if he’s going to continue to shoot at his career average of 30 percent from the arc it’s going to be tougher to carve out a niche.

He knows that much, too.

“Just taking and making the good shots,” he said. “Everybody knows the corner threes are the shortest and the easiest. Just being more efficient. I always say the three Es – energy, efficiency and effort – and if you can combine those three, then the sky’s the limit. That’s what I’m trying to do every single day. Been telling myself that since I was on the Cavs – play with energy, efficiency and effort.”

Williams plans similar free-agent camps with Minnesota – full circle – and Boston. He doesn’t envision himself going to Summer League or playing in the G League to prove himself any further, though he probably will be a little more decisive in free agency if an offer comes along.

“I was waiting during free agency (last summer). I waited a little bit too long,” he said. Williams wound up playing in China for six weeks last winter before hooking on with the Lakers on a 10-day contract in March.

But he still sees himself as an NBA-caliber player and thinks the drift toward his skill set should only enhance his appeal.

“The NBA’s going more toward hybrid – a lot of three/fours with Golden State starting that trend,” he said. “When I first got drafted, that was the biggest thing about me – I was a tweener – and now that’s exactly what they want in the NBA. Sometimes you’ve just got to keep playing and when the opportunity comes, you’ve got to showcase yourself.”