By Jon Krawczynski
AP Basketball Writer
MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Derrick Williams has reported to Minnesota Timberwolves training camp with more than just playing time to earn.
The Timberwolves have to make a decision by Oct. 31 whether to exercise the $6.3 million option for 2014-15 on Williams’ contract. Those moves are usually a matter of course for a former No. 2 overall draft pick like Williams was in 2011, and new president Flip Saunders has already said that he’s a fan of the young forward’s game.
But Williams has been inconsistent enough and had enough trouble finding the right role in coach Rick Adelman’s system through his first two years in the league that there does remain some question about the decision. The raise from just over $5 million this season to $6.3 million next year would bring the Wolves perilously close to the luxury tax, something owner Glen Taylor is reluctant to do.
And with Kevin Love back this year after playing just 18 games last season, the minutes for Williams at his more natural power forward position will be much harder to come by, so Williams knows there is a lot riding on this preseason.
“It’s a big month for me,” Williams said on Tuesday on the first day of Minnesota’s training camp.
When the Wolves selected Williams, many scouts and analysts felt that he was the most NBA-ready player in the draft. Then the lockout arrived, preventing Timberwolves coaches from working with him in the summer, and Williams found it difficult to ingratiate himself with Adelman, a veteran coach who has a reputation for being tough on rookies.
He showed modest improvement in his second season, especially down the stretch while he started at power forward for the injured Love. He averaged 15.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and shot 34 percent from 3-point range over the final 33 games of the season and, perhaps most importantly on a team that was ravaged by injuries, has been the most durable player on the Wolves roster over the last two years.
But with Love back in the mix this season and Adelman favorite Dante Cunningham backing him up at power forward, Williams is going to have to get the bulk of his playing time at small forward. He had jaw surgery after last season concluded to fix an alignment issue and had to sip food through a straw for weeks. Once doughy, Williams worked with Love’s trainer to drop close to 20 pounds in an effort to gain quickness and better matchup with small forwards on defense.
He showed up to camp this week looking slim and trim and ready to fight for minutes and fulfill some of the promise that he showed when he came out of Arizona.
“I know how good I am. I know how good I can be,” he said. “Just got to keep working. That’s why I took a few months to get my body in shape. I’m not tired. Last season I was exhausted. But the extra 15-20 pounds off, it really helps. I’m sure the coaches noticed it as well. I wasn’t asking for any subs. It was good.”
Adelman said he liked what he saw from Williams on the first day, but his praise came with a cautious optimism. Last year he raved about Williams early in camp, but didn’t like what he saw as the days wore on.
“Frankly I thought last year in camp he made some adjustments playing the 3 and then he just kind of gradually got away from it,” Adelman said. “He’s got to really, really hone in on that. That’s a chance for him to be very effective.”
With small forward Chase Budinger out indefinitely because of an injured left knee, the opportunity is there for Williams and Corey Brewer to get even more playing time. It will also give the coaches and Saunders a long look at him in the next three weeks leading up to the deadline to make a decision on Williams’ contract.
“It’s a lot of money. That’s why everyone’s talking about it,” Williams said. “But if I do what I have to do, stay healthy, it’s going to happen. I’m not really worried about it.”
Saunders, who took over as president of basketball operations this summer, has been noncommittal about his plans. But he also said he likes the potential Williams has shown to this point.
“I know what he’s done this summer. We’ll see how it translates,” Saunders said. “I’ve said all along, I’ve always been a big fan of his. To say there’s a decision there, that’s just because there’s a (deadline). I feel and I believe he’s going to be here. We’ll see what all transpires.”