Through the first three games of the season, Patrick Williams said the feedback from the Chicago Bulls coaching staff and his teammates has remained the same: “Stay with it. We’ll figure it out.”
Williams entered his third year in Chicago under fire, spending the preseason vying with fellow forward Javonte Green for a spot in the starting lineup.
Even after retaining his starting position, Williams is barely scraping the stat line in the first week of the season — 5.7 points and 2.0 rebounds per game with no assists. He’s shooting 33.3% from the field (25% from 3-point range) while taking only six shots per game.
Yet despite this sluggish start to the season, the Bulls are urging Williams to stay the course, starting him at power forward for a fourth straight game Monday night against the Boston Celtics at the United Center.
“He’s going to be all right. It’s three games,” DeMar DeRozan said after Saturday’s blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. “Sometimes it’s going to be healthy for you to understand what you need to do, how you need to do it and build from that.
“He just turned 21. He missed the majority of last year. He’ll find that rhythm. Some of us have to help him as well, but it’ll come.”
Coach Billy Donovan previously said Williams could prove himself without scoring at a high clip — he just needs to rebound. The Bulls struggled to protect the rim last season and allowed the second-most offensive rebounds (9.3 per game).
They need a concerted effort from the entire team — including Williams — to rectify this weakness. But Williams hasn’t shown up around the rim either. His two-rebound average is lower than that of guards Zach LaVine, Alex Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu and backup centers Andre Drummond and Tony Bradley.
“Sometimes it’s the most athletic guy, but a lot of time it’s just about being in the right place at the right time,” Williams said. “It’s just a matter of having that cognitive focus.”
In the preseason, Williams and Donovan both identified assertiveness as a key focus. Williams felt he often deferred to All-Stars DeRozan, LaVine and Nikola Vučević when he started, focusing too much on feeding the trio rather than establishing his own momentum.
After three starts this season, Williams said he feels confident in his position in the starting unit.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of confidence,” he said. “I think early on that might have been part of it, having the confidence and knowing I can, but I don’t think that’s it now. Now it’s just a matter of getting free and finding those moments and taking advantage of them.”
Whether or not Williams needs a confidence boost, it’s clear a solution hinges on his mental approach to the game. Williams is a physically gifted athlete, showing flashes of tantalizing promise this season when he drives at opponents or commits to a challenge on defense. But he lacks the consistency to bring that same fire to every play.
Williams said he’s working to “bring more energy” on both sides of the ball. His primary competition for the starting position, Green, never lacks for energy, bringing a consistent burst of intensity off the bench via dunks, rebounding and tenacious defense.
“That’s what he do,” DeRozan said of Green after the Cavaliers game. “The energy that he brings, the effort that he brings, it’s definitely contagious. You have to feed off that because every time he comes in the game, that’s something he’s going to do.”
The Bulls have committed to Williams as the No. 4 pick in the 2020 draft, through his wrist injury last season and now as a so-far underperforming starter in his third season. His youth and inexperience have been an excuse, but Williams is running out of runway to reach his potential.
Whatever his future will be, Williams isn’t thriving in the primary lineup. If he truly stays the course, it’s only a matter of time before the Bulls are forced to make a change.