LAS VEGAS -- No one waits on Derrick Williams anymore. The former No. 2 pick is just 23, a veteran of three NBA seasons. Within that time, though, the prospect of Williams' stardom has been discouraged if not wholly dispatched. Williams sputtered through fits of inconsistency in Minnesota before being dealt last season to Sacramento, where he only sputtered further. The 6-foot-8 forward has had his redeeming moments, but he's been underwhelming for such a high draft pick. His is not a tale of tragedy but one of reality: Of all those highly touted draft picks bursting with potential, some will inevitably return less than expected.
If anything else were the case with Williams, he likely wouldn't be here. This is Williams' second tour of the NBA Summer League, only denied a third because of the 2011 lockout and a fourth when the Timberwolves didn't field a team in 2013. A player of Williams' caliber does not become a Summer League regular without at least some awareness of his circumstances, and true to form, Williams projects confidence and humility.
"You have to work on the things that you know how to do," Williams said. "It's not trying to get out here and impress people. I know what I can do and I'm pretty good at it, man. Get to the elbow, pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll. Get out in transition. You just have to work on what you know."
That's where we are with Williams: He doesn't figure to be remade into something he is not. He isn't likely to become a perimeter weapon after topping 27 percent from three-point shooting only once. Williams' off-the-dribble game – a choose-your-own-adventure tale that tends to end badly – suggests he isn't going to become reliable with the ball. For a player who moves as well as Williams does, he remains a bit of a defensive liability as well. These factors, rolled in positional awkwardness, have held Williams back. Of much greater importance to Williams and the Kings, though, are those factors that might propel him forward.
"He's a very good rebounder and I want him to rebound and push," Kings coach Mike Malone said. "If he has a bigger guy on him, I want him to step out on the floor, face him up and attack -- and either get to the foul line or get to the rim. If he has a smaller guy on him, I want him to post up and punish him in the paint or draw the foul. I think he tried to do all those things [in Monday's 17-point performance against the D-League Select Team] and he's only going to get better."
That much seems certain. Sacramento, however, hasn't given Williams the developmental incubator he needs yet. It's not only minutes or touches that mold a quality prospect into a reputable player, but also a particular combination of opportunity and instruction. Young players need to be pushed to the point where they are allowed to make mistakes yet channeled in a way that reduces them. They need to be surrounded by players who bring out the best in them and vice versa. The precise recipe has yet to be found for Williams, in part because the Kings play a style that limits his strengths. Like so many hyper-athletic tweener types, what Williams needs is an ordered chaos – a basketball orientation that would allow him to move freely around the floor and best leverage those in-between skills that Malone described.
If evaluated purely as a post-up or face-up threat in a stodgy half-court setting, Williams' game will suffer. With some skill development and the help of a more fluid system, though, he could work his way to more lasting NBA utility. Williams won't find such support in the muck of Summer League, and if the Kings are anywhere near as dysfunctional on the court this coming season as they were last, such accommodations may elude him further.
For now, Williams can only tinker and refine as best as the situation allows. He won't become a sophisticated team defender on this patchwork roster, though there's value in repetition. The relative quiet of the Thomas & Mack Center leaves Williams' voice as an unmistakable commentary track for the game in progress; he barks orders to teammates and expresses his intentions, orchestrating action as an NBA veteran would.
It's in those minor exchanges that the value of Summer League for a player like Williams is laid bare. He will not be taking the leap this week. He will not take his once-rightful place as a star or even a starter. Williams will, however, push lightly on the limits of his game while emulating the habits of more effective players. Even if Williams never has the technical skill or depth of awareness to make his game whole, it does him good to engage in this process of improvement. For better or worse, Williams is still here.