NBA

The Bulls need Patrick Williams to take a big step next season

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Patrick Williams turned 21 on Friday.

That means the third-year Chicago Bulls forward can legally play in a casino if he chooses the next time he stops by to visit his young teammates at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Not that there’s much evidence that Williams wants to play, as the mild-mannered forward usually only talks about basketball, training, friends and family when asked about his interests. .

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But the pun is this: the Bulls are betting on Williams to take a big step forward in this ever-important third season that begins with training camp at the end of next month.

Think about it: Management has talked about core continuity consistently and maintained it through an offseason spent retaining Zach LaVine with a max contract and then working the margins to add known products in Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic. Management wanted it because, when whole and healthy, the Bulls had serious potential. They led the Eastern Conference until February 25.

Injuries helped derail much of the Bulls’ momentum. But I hit the wall against elite competition. The Bulls went just 1-14 against Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston, then lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs in five games to the Bucks.

While the Bulls are healthier this season, most of their leading performers are known commodities. Of course, LaVine can take it to another level by becoming an All-NBA selection, a goal made even more possible by his offseason arthroscopic knee surgery which should rekindle his elite athleticism. And Nikola Vucevic can shoot better than just 31.4% from 3 points.

But few expect 33-year-old DeMar DeRozan to end his All-NBA season from a year ago. Or Alex Caruso to better defend. Or Lonzo Ball to shoot better than 42.3% from 3 points. In short, if these three stay healthy, you’d expect a stellar game from all of them.

Williams remains a mystery—and still represents the greatest hope for internal improvement. Between his physique, his athleticism and his two-way potential, if he takes the major leap that internal expectations place him at, that’s how the Bulls start to fare better against the conference elite.

After all, Williams will be the one to draw the main defensive mission on Giannis Antetokounmpo. And Jimmy Butler. And Jayson Tatum. And James Harden — who, coincidentally, turned 33 on Friday. And so on.

Williams has posted plenty of promising moments, including back-to-back 20-point games against the Bucks in the playoffs. But too often Williams still has moments when he is barely noticeable on the pitch. He talked about the need to become more aggressive offensively. In this third season, it’s time to step up.

Williams averaged 7.4 and 6 shots in his first two NBA seasons, the second of which was limited to just 17 games after wrist surgery. It was out of control for Williams, a byproduct of a hard fall following a flagrant foul by Mitchell Robinson of the New York Knicks.

But the double-digit average, which Williams has yet to do, is under his control. As a 49% shooter, including 41.3% from 3-pointers on a low volume of 1.9 attempts per game, he has touch and range. At 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, he also has the physical ability to foul the discs and reach the free-throw line more times than his career 1.9 attempts per game.

That doesn’t mean Williams has to become a gunner. In this age of two-way wings, his defensive ability and impact may be even more needed, especially on a team that has to feed LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic. But Williams can’t pass up open shots. And he has to become more decisive offensively.

Williams is the fourth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft and will still represent the first major personnel move in Artūras Karnišovas’ tenure as executive vice president of basketball operations. That Williams turned 21 seems symbolic, a coming-of-age moment in a young career that has provided more questions than answers so far.

If the Bulls are going to take a step forward this season, improving Williams is essential. No one needs a birthday to remember that.

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