At his end-of-rookie-season press conference in mid-May, Patrick Williams spoke loftily of his goals for the impending offseason — a “big” one, he said, for both him and the Chicago Bulls.
Targeted skill training was to be on the docket, plus an August trip to Las Vegas for Summer League, an experience the COVID-19 pandemic robbed him of before his first NBA season.
Little did Williams know, an earlier trip to Sin City would soon pop up on his calendar in the form of an invitation to join the 2021 USA Men’s Basketball Select Team. From July 6-18, that 17-man roster is tasked with training with the National Team in advance of this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
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“When I first found out, honestly, I was surprised,” Williams said in a Zoom teleconference with reporters after the first day of the training camp, noting he wasn’t previously familiar with the Select Team. “But it's an opportunity. Opportunities, one thing about them, they'll pass you by quick if you let it.”
Williams has adopted a mantra for his stay — it’s a simple one, but anyone who has spent time speaking with or listening to the 19-year-old since his arrival in Chicago will find it familiar:
“Be a sponge,” Williams said. “That’s pretty much the motto for this camp, and the summer in general.”
Not only will Williams compete alongside a smattering of the NBA’s premier young talent in Las Vegas, he’ll also face off against the cream of the country’s crop. In the wing department alone, this year’s U.S. roster (for training camp) features Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Jerami Grant and Zach LaVine, among a host of other stars.
“You have the best of the best here. If they weren't they wouldn't be here, whether it’s a coach or a nutritionist or anybody who works for USA,” Williams said. “So just being a sponge to anybody, keeping open ears, even if the conversation isn't with me. Players, somebody else talking to somebody else, and I just walk by. Just having open ears and not being afraid to ask questions. Stepping out of my comfort zone a little bit. And being a little more vocal and being a little bit more interactional.”
This is a point LaVine impressed on Williams during a dinner the two shared after arriving in town. LaVine is a Select Team alum, himself, and used the opportunity to springboard a career defined by steady upward progression.
“He pretty much told me how much he learned when he was on the Select Team and how great of an experience that was for him and how that propelled him forward to be the player he is now,” Williams said. “He just encouraged me to kind of get out of my comfort zone and ask questions.”
While the Select Team and National Team haven’t yet faced off — Tuesday was just the first day of workouts — Select Team head coach Erik Spoelstra thinks Williams will acquit himself just fine.
“(He fits in) really well,” Spoelstra said. “Just from a physical standpoint, the U.S. main team has this incredible firepower, right? Lot of 30-point scorers, lot of guys that can facilitate and help space for those guys. But it starts with having players who are physically even capable of being even on the same court.
“Patrick is quite a physical specimen. Extremely strong and agile. He can play either the wing position or play that versatile 4 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 offensive improvements are, of course, crucial. While Williams relished high-profile defensive assignments, and a consistent starting role, during his rookie year, his offensive assertiveness waxed and waned. He finished the season averaging just 9.2 points on 7.4 shot-attempts per game. Both figures ranked seventh on the Bulls.
And yet, entering his second season, Williams is perhaps the team’s most important player — known, All-Star-caliber quantities in Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević aside.
“A lot,” Williams said when asked what he’s worked on so far this offseason, which he’s split between Chicago and Los Angeles. “Just getting used to pick-and-roll, getting in a lot more actions than I was last year and just being comfortable in those actions. Knowing I have the skill, I have the size, to be able to make plays in those actions, whether it's scoring or contributing to a teammate or dumping it off, whatever it is. Just being able to just have confidence that I can make plays in whatever actions that I'm in.
“I think my coaching staff and player development guys in Chicago have helped me, and just making sure I'm ready, not only for USA Select Team camp, but for the upcoming season and for Summer League. So I just been working. Every action that I think I can be in next year, I've been working on it, watching film on it, just thinking the game, talking the game, and of course playing the game. But I think it’s been more of mental for me than anything else.”
How can this training camp experience help him build on his two-way repertoire?
“In every way,” Williams said. “Whether I'm guarding them (National Team players) or they're guarding me, or whether I'm on the sideline and they're playing, just hearing the things they talk about on the court, off the court. Kind of how they approach their development. Kind of how they're approaching this summer.
“And then also, on the court, it gets no better than playing against the best in the world. I think I had a stretch there where I guarded LeBron (James) and Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and Kawhi Leonard, I think three games back-to-back (during the 2020-21 season). But now I get a chance to do it every day. It's more than just three guys, it's the best in the world. They're all here.”
So is Williams. The benefits, which could prove bountiful, remain to be seen.