Patrick Williams’ first couple of seasons in the NBA have been eventful, to say the least. Most 2020 NBA mock drafts anticipated Williams going in the top-10, but very few experts were expecting him to go as high as #4, where the Bulls surprisingly selected him.
He flashed signs of high-upside potential during his rookie year when Chicago traded for Nikola Vucevic at the deadline. This past off-season, the Bulls also acquired additional high usage players in DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball, adding them into the mix with Zach LaVine and Vucevic.
Five games into this sophomore campaign, Williams dislocated his wrist on a hard fall, forcing him to miss a majority of the year. He played in just 17 regular season contests and looked like he was struggling to fit in offensively, mainly spotting-up for 3-point attempts, cutting off-ball into the paint, or crashing for second-chance opportunities.
The roster overhaul has immediately made the Bulls as competitive as they’ve been since Jimmy Butler was dealt to Minnesota, but one of the detriments has been the effect on Williams’ role. With LaVine, DeRozan, Vucevic, and Ball spending so much time handling the rock, the rest of the roster has had to learn how to play off those guys, including Williams; this year, his usage rate of 13.9% ranked below less heralded youngsters like Ziaire Williams (14.4%) and Corey Kispert (14.2%).
Unfortunately, that means some of his greatest strengths get mitigated, particularly his vision and passing ability, both of which had NBA draft experts excited about him coming out of Florida State. Not only can Williams see passing windows others don’t, he’s also skilled enough with either hand to place the ball through them, which is even more impressive when considering his 6-foot-7, 215-pound frame.
In Chicago’s final game of the regular season in Minnesota on Sunday, the Bulls sat LaVine, DeRozan, Vucevic, Alex Caruso, and Coby White. Those absences allowed Williams ample opportunity and he absolutely shined, finishing with a career-high 35 points on 10-21 FG, 3-4 3FG, 12-14 FT, four rebounds, and four assists in 41 minutes. Williams showed what he’s capable of, creating shots not only for himself, but his teammates as well.
If Chicago is going to have any chance in their first-round playoff match-up with Milwaukee, and sportsbooks currently aren’t giving them much of one, Williams will need to carry over as much from Sunday’s performance as possible into his postseason debut. Playing the Timberwolves’ junior varsity squad in a meaningless game is slightly different than doing it against the defending NBA champs in the postseason, but it’s still clear that Williams needs to be more involved than he has been with the Bulls’ regular starting group.
Against Milwaukee, Chicago could occasionally use Williams as a screener for LaVine and DeRozan, rather than Vucevic, especially if Vucevic’s shooting goes cold, as it has for long stretches this season (he shot just 31.9% on 307 3FG above the break 3FG). The Bulls could instead plant Vucevic in the corner and utilize Williams’ versatility in the pick-and-roll game. If Milwaukee plays a drop coverage, which is almost always head coach Mike Budenholzer’s preference, Williams is good enough shooter to take advantage of the space; he shot 13-25 catch and shoot 3s this year and 49-123 (39.8%) last year).
If LaVine and/or DeRozan are able to find a rhythm, perhaps the Bucks decide to blitz and force the ball out of their hands. If that were the case, Williams is perfectly suited to run the point in a 4-on-3 break, with his ability to play downhill, finding shooters and cutters or finishing at the rim himself.
Defensively, the Bulls could use Williams to try and make Giannis Antetokounmpo work a little harder than he typically has to when playing them; the Greek Freak averaged 26.8 points and 13.5 rebounds on 55.7% shooting against Chicago this season in just 32.3 minutes per game, leading the Bucks to a 4-0 record over the Bulls.
As we know, Antetokounmpo is at his best as a runaway freight train (if trains had arms long enough to hug a small planet), scoring a league best 8.5 points per game in transition. Tasking Williams with slowing down a two-time NBA MVP and 2021 Finals MVP is a gigantic ask, but he is the best equipped Bull to take on Giannis with his combination of size, strength, and agility.
If Williams is up to the task, it would go a long way if he could extend defensively beyond half court, even if it just means turning Giannis once or twice so that he isn’t dribbling full speed in straight lines at the rim all game. When it gets to that point, he’s close to unstoppable.
To this point in his career, Williams has tantalized Bulls fans at times and left them cold at others, which is the case for plenty of 20 year-olds in the NBA. Given what his role has looked like when Chicago is at full strength, its a little far-fetched to imagine Williams having a major impact on a playoff series.
That said, the upside is impossible to ignore when Williams is rolling, and the Bulls will need every ounce of that potential to put up a fight against Milwaukee. If head coach Billy Donovan can put him in positions to succeed, and Williams remains aggressive rather than passive, he is more than capable of having a significant say in how the series plays out when Chicago and Milwaukee tip-off their series at 5:30 on Sunday.