A couple miles from Williams Arena, Rodney Williams is still the same player, full of unusual athleticism and unanswered questions.
At the Timberwolves’ pre-draft workout Wednesday, Williams, as always, wowed with a raw ability that is rare enough to have compelled many to make great projections for him four years ago. He can kiss the rim and jump out of the building. He can be a slasher and a scorer.
But on the NBA floor at Target Center, Williams also shows the limitations of an uneven four-year college career. He’s not always aggressive. His shot comes and goes. He’s most comfortable at power forward, where he spent most of the past two seasons with the Gophers, but he doesn’t belong there at the next level. He’s shaped like a guard in every place but his mind.
That picture paints a potentially tough road ahead for Williams, predicted to be chosen late in the second round of the NBA draft by some — or not at all by others. He could wind up looking for work overseas.
“It’s been pretty tough trying to live up to the expectations, especially … after being in the talk about being a lottery pick in freshman year,” Williams said. “Having my consistency be so up and down during those four years at the ‘U’ — it was tough to really live up to the expectations. But that’s part of it. I signed up to go to college to play ball and I knew all that comes with it. It’s such a grind now, and I’ve got to keep working hard so I can go out here and fulfill my dream.”
Asked what about Williams’ game translates to the next level, the blunt response came swiftly from new Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, who also has more than 600 victories as an NBA head coach.
“Right now, nothing,” said Saunders, who cited shooting skills and ball handling as areas in which Williams needs to improve greatly. “So with Rodney, that’s going to be where he is now — can he make that transition over the next three weeks and use his athleticism defensively and maybe tickle somebody’s fancy by how he plays?”
Williams was not among the 60 prospects invited to the NBA predraft combine in Chicago. He had impressive marks in a number of areas at a different workout in New Jersey, including a 36-inch no-step and 42.5-inch max vertical leap — which would have ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, at the Chicago combine had he been there.
But pure athleticism doesn’t always turn into manifest success on the court, where the Minneapolis native and former Cooper standout has shown flashes of intensity and dominance in the past. Too many reluctant interludes, however, keep those moments from being the end story. An old hindrance showed up Wednesday when Williams — who has been working on his shooting — airballed a three-pointer.
“It’s a different story when you have to play against people, and that’s usually how we play games, against people, not by yourself,” Saunders said. “We know he’s always been a great athlete, but at this level you just don’t get by with athleticism.”
What Williams’ role would be in his dream scenario is just as ambiguous now as where he will call home in a month. In high school, Williams played center. With the Gophers, he played on the wing at times but settled into power forward when it was clear that he would be most productive there. Saunders said Williams might actually be more like a shooting guard in terms of size. But without the skill set necessary to succeed at that position, it’s hard to determine how he’ll fit.
With workouts scheduled at Houston and Detroit, Williams has at least two more opportunities to coax an NBA team to carve out a role for him.
“I definitely feel confident,” Williams said. “I feel like out here, I had a pretty decent showing and, in New Jersey, I feel like I had a decent showing as well. … Hopefully somebody sees something that they like in me and hopefully I can get on a team, sneak on a team somewhere.”