(Photo: Jacob Gralton)
In recent years NBA players have changed their practice habits. Players now zero in on their development at an earlier age, in order to make it further with their careers. They live in the gym (not literally) and are keenly aware of their own strengths and weaknesses even in their early teens.
Professional basketball players, also outside of the US, have dedicated their lives to sharpening their skills and building themselves up, using whatever advantage they can get their hands on.
This plays right into the hands of the annual NBA Summer League.
Tell me more about the Summer League!
All 30 NBA teams go to Las Vegas for a two-week basketball extravaganza, albeit with certain key differences from the regular season.
Instead of showcasing major stars like LeBron James or Kevin Durant, teams are bringing with them their young players and unsigned free agents, to give them some much-needed run. This way, teams accelerate the development curve of their own players and test out new talent who they can consider signing later on.
Sometimes, teams also bring with them second or third-year players to track their development and see how they have leveled up during the summer break from the end of the season.
One such player is forward Patrick Williams, who is entering his second season with the Chicago Bulls.
Why is Williams at Summer League?
Last season, the 19-year-old Williams started in all 71 games he played as a rookie. So one might wonder why he was invited to Summer League after playing such a vital role on last year’s team.
Williams, however, is hell-bent on taking a major leap coming into his second year, and has felt a need to get as many reps as possible. In fact, earlier this summer the teenager joined the USA Select Team, a group of young NBA players that trained daily with the USA Men’s National Team, before they left for the Olympics in Japan.
There, Williams raised some eyebrows. In particular, he raised the eyebrows of Erik Spoelstra, who is the head coach of the Miami Heat, and who served as coach for the Select Team.
“Patrick is quite a physical specimen. Extremely strong and agile. He can play either the wing position or play that versatile four position. I think he’s set up in the future to be a great two-way basketball player, to be able to defend virtually everybody on the floor whatever your scheme may be. And then offensively his game has already really grown. You can tell he’s extremely dedicated to have that kind of improvement,” the coach was quoted as saying.
Due to the cancellation of Summer League last summer, Williams also chopped at the bit of experiencing it first-hand, despite his 1,983 minutes of game action in the just-concluded 2020/2021 season.
First taste of Summer League & Leveling up
The growth of Williams’ offensive game has been evident during Chicago’s first two games in Summer League. While the youngster shot just 6-for-20 in the first game – a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans – the chiseled 6’8 forward ran pick and rolls as the ball-handler, functioned as a playmaker, and had the offense run through him, all areas that he did not get to experiment with last season on Chicago’s main team.
Also noticeable was Williams’ offensive aggressiveness, driving hard to the rim after coming off screens and competing for offensive rebounds to get some putbacks. Not only did Williams look more engaged than ever before in his pro career, he also took ownership of the game and tried to will his team into a better position.
While the Bulls ended up getting smacked in the mouth by the Pelicans – who themselves have a lot of intriguing young players on their roster – Williams showcased a shift in his mentality, which last year was riddled with hesitancy and swinging confidence levels.
One could even argue that Williams going 6-for-20 can be seen as a good thing. Usually, if he wasn’t hitting shots early, he’d stop shooting altogether and play a considerably more passive brand of basketball.
In the second game, however, Williams broke out as he scored 30 points and led the Bulls to a come-from-behind victory over the San Antonio Spurs, after trailing by 22 points.
Williams once again showed off a much-improved handle of the ball and initiated more plays off the dribble. He knocked down four three-pointers, cut to the basket while moving off-the-ball, and finished the game with a rim-rocking dunk in the final seconds.
Furthermore, Williams once again took ownership of the game as he took 23 shots. For those of you keeping score, that’s 43 shots in two games for Williams. During the regular season with the Bulls, it would usually take him between 4-5 games to achieve that total.
The Bulls are going to need Williams to be more assertive in his second season, as the team upgraded during the NBA offseason by acquiring playmaker Lonzo Ball and veteran NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan.
The soon-to-be 20-year-old will likely be Chicago’s fourth offensive option in the 2021/2022 season, which allows him to make smarter and more calculated decisions. So his experience in Summer League might be his one chance to spread his wing and test out just how good he is, before getting bumped down the totem pole after the start of the regular season.
What’s next for Williams?
Remember the dedicated work ethic that young basketball players have started applying at an early age, that we talked about earlier?
Williams is no exception, which was a large part of why the Bulls drafted him fourth overall in the 2020 NBA Draft. He came into the professional ranks with a tremendous work ethic, one that has only grown after spending his first year alongside Zach LaVine and Thaddeus Young, two notorious gym rats.
For Williams, this is only the beginning.
His work habit and approach to development took him all the way to the NBA, but now his priority has shifted to not only staying in the league but reaching a tier where he becomes the inspiration for forthcoming generations.
And it all starts with putting in the work.