The 2011 NBA Draft might go down as one of the best in recent memory with Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Isaiah Thomas among the game’s bright young stars to come out of that class.
Derrick Williams, taken with the No. 2 pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in that draft, would love to finally make his mark with the Heat.
Playing for his fourth team in six seasons, the 6-8, 245-pound, athletic combo-forward took less money this summer, signing a one-year, $5.9 million contract to be a part of the Heat’s makeover and play in coach Erik Spoelstra’s position-less system.
With 11-time All-Star Chris Bosh unlikely to play for the Heat again, Williams has a chance to compete for a starting job on a team that could spend its entire preseason trying to figure out the right combinations of lineups.
“Some people jump out of the gates really fast and some people it takes a little bit of time,” Williams said last week before the Heat opened camp Tuesday at Atlantis Paradise Resort. “I really feel like this might be my time.”
When Williams, 25, left the University of Arizona after two seasons he thought he was getting into the NBA at the right time. Spoelstra’s position-less style of basketball with the Heat was just beginning to spread around the league, and Williams felt he was going to flourish in it.
But he’s done anything but. When Williams got to Minnesota as a 20-year-old rookie, Kevin Love was already there and just beginning to develop into an All-Star.
After two-plus seasons with the T’Wolves, Williams was traded to Sacramento, where he spent a year and a half coming off the bench before signing as a free agent with the Knicks last season. In New York, Williams says, basketball finally became fun again for him.
He feels that way, too, about the Heat.
“When you’re a top pick, people look at you no matter what like you have to average 20 points per game,” said Williams, who in his first five seasons in the league has averaged 9.3 points while shooting 43 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from beyond the three-point arc.
“I never got criticized on how I played until I got to the NBA,” Williams added. “I mean, I was 20 years old and when you don’t have leaders around you, you kind of get down on yourself a little bit. But I’ve learned it doesn’t matter about the last play as long as you make the play up, get back on defense. That’s what coaches want to see. And I felt like this is the right spot for me and the right time in my career to really show that.”
Heat veteran Udonis Haslem, who organized the team’s offseason workouts that began in August, said Williams and backup center Willie Reed were the two most dedicated offseason players for the Heat this summer. Working out with his teammates in the offseason was something Williams admitted he didn’t do much of before.
“This offseason I kind of got away from the individual training,” he said. “I’ve been here since August 2nd, and I just feel like I’m a much better basketball player already than I was at the end of last season. You learn stuff every day in this organization — not just on the basketball court, but the mentality is a lot different. The vibe is much different. Everybody is accustomed to winning. We’re not about trying to win a certain amount of games. We’re here to make the playoffs.”
But Williams also knows he has a lot to prove to be a big part of that movement.
While center Hassan Whiteside said Williams “can attack off the dribble like Luol Deng,” his shooting and defense need to improve. Last season, even though he held the players he guarded to 1.6 below their normal shooting percentage (42.5), Williams’ defensive rating was 106.3, one of the worst in the league.
Spoelstra on Thursday commended Williams’ efforts to improve on defense.
“He’s really committed to that process,” Spoelstra said. “That means coming in early, staying after practice and drilling and doing a lot of things most veteran players wouldn’t have to do at his age.”
Williams said he’s committed to it.
“Everybody in this league is good. Everybody has talent. It’s really about stops, man,” Williams said. “I’ve been around other teams where more offense has been focused, which is more toward my game. But I’m willing to switch that role and really get down on the defensive side and be a great two-way player.”