Patrick Williams turned 21 on Friday.
That means the Chicago Bulls' third-year forward can legally gamble in a casino should he so choose the next time he stops by to visit his younger teammates at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Not that there's any great evidence of Williams desiring to gamble since the mild-mannered forward typically only talks about basketball, working out, friends and family when asked about his interests.
But the pun is: The Bulls are betting on Williams taking a large 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 during an offseason spent on retaining Zach LaVine with a maximum contract and then working the margins to add known commodities in Andre Drummond and Goran Dragić. Management has desired this because, when whole and healthy, the Bulls flashed serious potential. They led the Eastern Conference as late as February 25.
Injuries helped derail much of the Bulls' momentum. But so did hitting the wall against elite competition. The Bulls managed just a 1-14 mark against Miami, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston and then lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs in five games to the Bucks.
If the Bulls are healthier this season, most of their core performers are known commodities. Sure, LaVine can hit another level by becoming an All-NBA selection, a goal made even more possible by his offseason arthroscopic knee surgery that should rekindle his elite athleticism. And Nikola Vučević can shoot better than just 31.4 percent from 3-point range.
But few expect a 33-year-old DeMar DeRozan to top his All-NBA season from a year ago. Or Alex Caruso to defend better. Or Lonzo Ball to shoot better than 42.3 percent from 3-point range. In short, if those three stay healthy, you expect stellar play from all.
Williams remains a mystery — and still represents the biggest hope for internal improvement. Between his physicality, athleticism and two-way potential, if he takes the major step that internal expectations have him pegged for, that's how the Bulls start faring better against the conference's elite.
After all, Williams will be the one drawing the primary defensive assignment on Giannis Antetokounmpo. And Jimmy Butler. And Jayson Tatum. And James Harden — who, coincidentally, turned 33 on Friday. And on and on and on.
Williams has displayed plenty of moments of promise, including back-to-back, 20-point games against the Bucks in the playoffs. But too often, Williams still has moments where he's barely noticeable on the court. He has talked about the need to become more aggressive offensively. In this, his third season, it's time to walk the walk.
Williams has averaged 7.4 and 6 shots during his first two seasons in the NBA, the second of which was limited to just 17 games following wrist surgery. That was out of Williams' control, a byproduct of a hard fall from a flagrant foul by the New York Knicks' Mitchell Robinson.
But averaging in double digits, which Williams has yet to do, is in his control. As a 49 percent shooter, including 41.3 percent from 3-point range on low volume of 1.9 attempts per game, he has the touch and the range. At 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, he also has the physical ability to draw fouls on drives and get to the free-throw line more often than his career 1.9 attempts per game.
This isn't to say Williams needs to become a gunner. In this age of two-way wings, his defensive ability and impact may be even more necessary, particularly on a team that needs to feed LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević. But Williams can't pass up open shots. And he needs to become more decisive offensively.
Williams is the fourth overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft and always will represent the first major personnel move of Artūras Karnišovas' tenure as executive vice president of basketball operations. That Williams has turned 21 feels symbolic, a coming-of-age moment in a young career that has provided more questions than answers to this point.
If the Bulls are going to take a step forward this season, Williams' improvement is critical. Nobody needs a birthday to be reminded of that.
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