Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Kings playing hunch in deal for Derrick Williams

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

This latest trade was sitting there, belt high, begging to be made. Veteran forward Luc Mbah a Moute wasn’t transporting the Kings to the promised land (NBA playoffs), and Derrick Williams wasn’t driving the Minnesota Timberwolves to the postseason, either, so swap on.

The difference is the Wolves know what they’re getting – a very capable wing defender – while the Kings are playing a hunch. They think Williams can play, and deep down, they would love to learn that their new, young forward was just pining away in the tundra, waiting to be discovered.

But that’s all this is. A hunch. A look-see. A hope.

“There’s no need to wait to work Derrick in,” coach Michael Malone said Wednesday after Williams participated in his first practice. “We went out and got him for a reason. Let’s throw him out there and see what he can do and give him time to get adjusted, knowing there’s no pressure, no expectations. Just go out there and play hard, and defend, and he’ll be fine.”

The reality is that lottery selections rarely travel without baggage. Expectations come with the job. Owners and general managers only draft high and sell low when they’re convinced they goofed or inherit personnel that doesn’t fit their needs.

Williams was 0 for 2 in Minneapolis. Make that 0 for 3. He was inherited by general manager Flip Saunders and coach Rick Adelman, crowded onto a roster that already featured All-Star Kevin Love, and in his two-plus seasons the second overall pick in 2011 had yet to establish an identity at either forward position.

The Wolves ultimately decided the former Arizona standout was a power forward, which is Love’s position. The Kings plan to experiment with him at small forward, though both Malone and general manager Pete D’Alessandro insistently reserved the right to revise their opinion.

While caution flags should start flying whenever Adelman fails to get the most out of a player – the one-time Kings coach is one of the game’s most innovative offensive minds – it’s also true players often thrive when in different situations.

Mike Bibby, another former Wildcats star and second overall pick (1998), is a classic example. Three seasons into his career, the Vancouver Grizzlies concluded he was too slow and not creative enough to be their starting point guard. The rest is well-chronicled Kings lore: In one of the most controversial but significant moves of his tenure, Geoff Petrie acquired Bibby for the entertaining but erratic Jason Williams.

Whether Williams, 22, enjoys a similar renaissance remains to be seen. The circumstances between eras contrast sharply. Bibby was one of the final pieces to the Kings near-masterpiece, a complementary star surrounded by Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac and Doug Christie.

These Kings are in the throes of rebuilding, and D’Alessandro’s cellphone is seemingly attached to his ear. There is one established star in DeMarcus Cousins, one projected star in Ben McLemore, one super sub in Isaiah Thomas, with pretty much everything else up for grabs, including both forward positions.

“I try not to put a ceiling on myself,” Williams said. “I want to be better than that. I think (the coaches) want me to be a great player, and I think I can.”

At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, the Southern California native is strong and athletic, and he can be explosive on the break. He prefers the left post (as does Cousins), is more effective from mid-range than beyond the arc and, like most players, looks much better when he gets easy baskets.

His additional challenges here – as they were in Minneapolis – involve his passing and defensive intensity.

But he’s only 22, healthy and finally emotionally distanced from an unspectacular 2011 draft that further illustrates that the annual college feast is more art than science: Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas, Jan Vesley, Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette were chosen ahead of Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Vucevic.

In another year, who knows? Maybe Williams would have dropped in the draft and become a sleeper. Or maybe he seizes the opportunity and becomes a steal anyway.

“I wanted a new start,” he said. “It was a lot of people at one spot. It just didn’t work out. You have good players go to different teams and they excel. I hope that can happen here.”