The Chicago Bulls don’t have a precise return date for Patrick Williams yet, but head coach Billy Donovan believes it will come some time in late March.
“I’m pretty confident about that,” Donovan told reporters over Zoom before Monday’s 112-103 loss to the Kings. “Unless there's some kind of setback or he doesn't feel like he's got the strength necessary.”
Next question: When Williams, who was late last week cleared to face partial contact, is back, what type of player are the Bulls getting? Donovan painted a cautiously optimistic picture in that regard.
“He can play an important role for our team,” the Bulls’ coach said in one breath, while also acknowledging a preference to ease the second-year forward back into the fray in a reserve role.
“If we were whole (when Williams returns), I think the best thing to do with him would be to ease him in and bring him off the bench. That's just my opinion right now,” Donovan said. “I don't think it would be fair to him, just to throw him — with the number of games he's missed and the amount of months he's missed — to say, his first game back: 'Hey, he's starting.’”
Williams started 71 of 72 games as a rookie and the first five contests of his second season before tearing ligaments in his left wrist during a late-October game against the Knicks, requiring a complex surgery from which he is still rehabilitating.
So, while Williams capably came off the bench in college and is certain to embrace whatever return plan the coaching staff forms, him sliding to the bench would be news. And it points to tempered expectations by the organization, even if Williams, on paper, is exactly the type of versatile, defensive-minded power forward this roster needs.
“I just don't know what we're gonna get. He's (Williams) really worked hard,” Donovan said. “I think adding Patrick helps our team. But for a guy that's missed five months, and the first day he comes back, just to unload him into the starting lineup, I don't know if that would be the best thing for our team and I don't know if that would necessarily be fair to Patrick.
“I think he is gonna need some time to get his legs under him, to get his rhythm back, to find some kind of routine. And I think as a starter, coming back, to put him in that position, I think would be a big ask for him.”
This is where it’s important to remember that Williams, 20, is a second-year player who was in the process of finding his footing in the NBA before the injury — a traumatic one, at that. As a rookie, there were flashes of the preternatural athleticism, defensive acumen and shot-creation ability that motivated the Bulls to select him fourth overall in the 2020 draft. But there were also plenty of nights he appeared overwhelmed by the two-way burden immediately thrust on him. And when he returns, it will be to an almost entirely new roster, save for Zach LaVine, Coby White and, to a lesser extent, Nikola Vučević.
It’s all part of why the Bulls have tread so lightly at every phase of his recovery.
The stakes now, however, have never been higher. If Williams were to return on, say, March 31 — the five-month anniversary of his surgery, which Donovan pointed to as a rough target by the team’s medical staff — the Bulls would have just six regular-season games left on the calendar. Then, the playoffs. And the further they slip in the standings, the tougher their first-round matchup inevitably will become.
As Donovan noted, Javonte Green and Derrick Jones Jr. have filled in capably at power forward, but Williams’ size, physicality and defensive prowess would be a boon to a thin frontcourt rotation.
Still, expecting anything concrete — in role, production or otherwise — appears presumptuous at this juncture. This will be more than a plug-and-play situation.