SACRAMENTO, Calif. – There was the lob from Greivis Vasquez that became a two-hand dunk and his own alley-oop toss to Ben McLemore to finish a break and, finally, there also was the time he ditched defender Jared Dudley backdoor, rose along the left baseline, extended his right arm to the ceiling, controlled the ball one-handed inside the restricted zone despite Blake Griffin contesting the pass and in a single motion completed the slam as the crowd erupted.
All was right in Derrick Williams’ world. It was just one night, Friday at Sleep Train Arena against the Clippers. But he helped ignite the home fans and basked in the adulation with a featured role. He played small forward. And he played a lot, 32 minutes, including all but 22 seconds of overtime.
It was what he imagined the last two seasons would have been like, had he permanently been at the position he preferred or been given a chance at any spot by the Timberwolves. In his mind, he didn’t get one. Suddenly, Williams was a King, traded for Luc Mbah a Moute, and in his first game was throwing down multiple lobs, picking off defensive rebounds and pushing the ball downcourt himself on the break, generally turning Sleep Train wild.
Now all he has to do is come close to repeating that a half-dozen times a month or so.
For all the talk that getting out of Minnesota and away from the expectations that come with being the second pick in the 2011 draft, Williams knows the pressure is still on, maybe more than ever. He came to a team that wants to develop prospects, unlike with the Timberwolves aiming for the playoffs, and to a team that gave him a clear path to the opening lineup at small forward, unlike his previous home.
Minnesota didn’t put anything on a silver platter. But the Kings benched opening-night starter John Salmons and traded his replacement to the Twin Cities to get Williams. That was followed by Sacramento coach Michael Malone sounding like a man very conscious of building up Williams’ confidence.
Miss this chance and Williams may never get a better opportunity. Miss this chance and Williams will validate Rick Adelman and the Timberwolves and take away the I-never-got-a-chance defense.
“It’s on me,” said Williams, who followed up the thrilling debut with four points on one-of-three shooting, along with seven rebounds, in 21 minutes in the Sunday loss to the Warriors. “I really feel like I can help this team a lot. Just my style of play. But it’s put up or shut up. I really feel like I can make something happen here. That’s the main thing. For my career and helping this team, I really feel like I can do that.”
Besides, that whole never-got-a-chance thing isn’t based in reality. Before taking a seat near the end of the bench the first month of 2013-14, when every front office knew he was available in a trade, Williams appeared in 66 games as a rookie (the only Minnesota player of any experience level to make every game) and 78 games last season. He got in 97 percent of the games. He started 71 times, 48 percent of the possible starts. He averaged 21.5 and 24.6 minutes. He played small forward, his preferred position, alongside Kevin Love and played power forward when Love missed most of 2012-13 with a hand injury.
When Williams heard the news of the trade, he said, his reaction was happiness at a fresh start, which is fair, and that he was, “Excited to get back out on the court and finally get a fair shot,” which isn’t. He didn’t get to play true small forward as he had wanted, but the Timberwolves grew to see the Williams that concerned a lot of teams heading into the draft – he may be a classic tweener, unable to stick at either forward spot.
The Kings are willing to give him his shot. They have handed small forward to Williams, told him not to worry about looking to the bench with every mistake. He has this season and next to see if he turns into part of the solution in Sacramento or a test drive that didn’t work out. Now it’s up to Williams.