Having played for the Timberwolves, Kings, Knicks and Heat all by his 25th birthday, former NBA No. 2 overall draft pick Derrick Williams’ fate changed the moment he stepped into the Cavaliers locker room for the first time last month.
“It’s just different,” he said. “It’s a winning atmosphere. You can feel the energy.”
Williams played two-plus seasons for the Wolves to start his pro career, then was traded, waived and signed his way around the league from Sacramento and New York to Miami, never fulfilling the promise of a collegiate career and NCAA tournament performance that made him such a high pick.
Drafted in 2011 ahead of such players as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and others, Williams without such lofty expectations now has joined the defending NBA champions.
The Cavaliers were the NBA’s big trade deadline winners, and they didn’t even make a deal just then. Cleveland dealt for shooter Kyle Korver in January and signed Williams two weeks before the deadline, and after it, the Cavs signed free-agent veterans Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams.
Add the uncertainty Golden State superstar Kevin Durant’s knee injury presents to the playoff picture and the Cavaliers look primed and pumped to defend their title.
Derrick Williams himself is ready to be a winner again for the first time since Arizona reached the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight in his second, and final, college season.
“That winning atmosphere, it’s something I haven’t been used to in a few years and that’s what I want to get a part of,” he said when he returned to Target Center with the Cavs last month. “It’s never good to lose, no matter what age, division or league you’re in. Nobody wants to be a loser.”
Once drafted to revive a failing franchise, Williams now is an unsung role player whom the Cavaliers landed after Williams negotiated with Heat GM Pat Riley his release because he played little in Miami. Even with a stacked roster, Williams quickly has become a trusted role player, asked to defend multiple positions, run the floor and attack the rim.
“He plays hard, plays tough, can play above the rim and he’s versatile,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue, recalling one game when Williams defended every position but center.
Williams called himself a “caged lion” during his Wolves years, when he was young and inexperienced and often played without a purpose. Now he seems to have discovered how to play with one, or many.
Maybe he’s caged no more.
Like many players, it has taken him failure and multiple moves — not to mention time’s passing — to find his way in the league. He was drafted by David Kahn and traded by new basketball boss Flip Saunders in November 2013 to the Kings for Luc Mbah a Moute, who didn’t stick either.
“It has been three, four years and man, you learn a lot,” Williams said. “You learn a lot throughout the games, throughout the years. You learn about yourself. That’s one thing you learn: How you can adjust to different cities, different teams, different players, different mentalities. It has been up and down, but I’m glad I’m finally in a spot where I can be stable and learn from some of the best.”
He walks into his locker room now and sees LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and former Wolves teammate Kevin Love, just to name three.
“They’ve embraced me so well,” Williams said. “That’s what I really need: Some game exposure and just get out there with guys who really want to win. So far, it has been great.”
• Golden State coach Steve Kerr broke a clipboard and his Warriors lost consecutive games for the first time in 146 consecutive games, dating to April 9, 2015, Thursday at Chicago.
Kerr has called that streak probably the most impressive thing about the Warriors’ play these last three seasons. Its end came without injured superstar Kevin Durant part of one game and all of the other.
Coincidence? “Without Kevin Durant, they’ve got zero chance of winning a championship,” TNT analyst Charles Barkley said. “Without Kevin Durant, I don’t think they get out of the Western Conference.”
• Wolves veteran guard Brandon Rush still likes his former Golden State team in the playoffs, even though rival Cleveland has signed veteran free agents Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut without giving back a thing and Durant is out injured for at least a month because of an injured knee.
“As long as [Durant] can get in a couple games before the playoffs, they’ll be fine,” Rush said.
• You find them all over YouTube: Compilations of Wolves young star Andrew Wiggins’ greatest-hit dunks over some of the NBA’s biggest big men. There’s footage of him dunking in Utah center Rudy Gobert’s face and over or past Golden State’s JaVale McGee, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and Denver’s Nikola Jokic. But he says he never goes online to admire them.
“No, I see it when I see it,” he said. “Sometimes someone might show it or if I’m scrolling down my Instagram, I might see something. But I’ll never go out of my way to look for it.”
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Portland
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Friday: 7 p.m. vs. Golden State
All games on FSN; Friday’s also on NBA TV
Player to watch: Stephen Curry, Golden State
There’s no need to defer now that teammate Kevin Durant is sidelined for at least a month because of a new injury, so will Target Center fans see the guy who could have been theirs return to his MVP form in these coming weeks? Either way, show up early to watch his warmup routine.
“I knew that would happen.”
Wolves rookie guard Kris Dunn after several bobblehead dolls made in his likeness showed up on eBay last week for sale ranging from $30 to $75. His alma mater Providence gave them out at a game Tuesday night.