Minnesota's Derrick Williams goes up for a shot against the Lakers' Earl Clark, left, and Antawn Jamison in the first half Thursday night.


LOS ANGELES - While Minnesota coach Rick Adelman and most of the Timberwolves were stuck on a bus early Thursday evening, still crawling on the freeway 90 minutes before a game with the Lakers, Derrick Williams was already inside their Staples Center locker room.

The former Arizona Wildcat star from nearby La Mirada, Calif., knows a thing or two about L.A. traffic.

Besides, he needed the extra quiet time.

At Williams' feet were about a dozen ticket envelopes for his homecoming game Thursday, with Williams addressing each one and stuffing the appropriate tickets in it. Friends, family, neighbors, you name it.

"It's always like this" in Los Angeles, Williams said.

You could say Williams has become just as popular inside the Timberwolves' locker room after a season and a half with the club that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft out of UA.

The proof is not just in the fact that Williams put together three totals of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in his past five games entering Thursday, taking advantage of hand injuries to Timberwolves forward Kevin Love.

Instead, the real proof surfaced Monday, when the Timberwolves flew into Phoenix - and Williams was able to talk three of his teammates into making the drive south with him to open his new "VII Grand" apparel and shoe store in downtown Tucson.

Yes, guard Ricky Rubio, center Greg Stiemsma and guard J.J. Barea basically threw away the idea of using the evening to relax in Phoenix, have a nice dinner and enjoy the break from the Minnesota chill.

"Just showing a little bit of support," Williams said. "Most of the time you're getting paid for appearances and signings, but I just asked them if they'd go down there and do something for me. They wanted to."

That's an agreement of four hours of round-trip driving for a bunch of millionaires who already travel at a blinding pace and had a game the next evening against the Suns.

"It was a little farther than we thought," Rubio said. "But it was to see how he was doing and he's a great guy. We liked it."

It was hardly the first time Rubio has helped Williams out. Saying Williams has done an "unbelievable" job of working before and after practices to improve, Rubio bonded with him on the court.

Their relationship is visible now. In fact, it may be no coincidence that Williams' recent resurgence began not long after Rubio returned from a torn ACL in December.

"One thing that's helped (Williams) is the fact that Ricky's back on the court," Adelman said Thursday, before the Timberwolves' 116-94 loss to the Lakers. "If he keeps moving - we talk to him about 'Don't just stand, cut to the basket' - and he does that when Ricky has the ball. That's gotten him some easy baskets. That really helps your game."

The other part of Williams' recent improvement is solely on him. After struggling through a lockout-shorted rookie season when he fell far behind Love and other forwards for playing time, Williams also had trouble taking over as a starter initially this season when Love missed the first nine games with a broken hand.

But when Love broke his hand again in January, and Rubio was back, Williams started thriving. Williams was averaging 16.7 points in the nine previous games before Thursday.

He scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a team-high 40 minutes Thursday.

For the season, Williams is averaging 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds in 22 minutes per game.

"Both times (Love was hurt), he's had opportunities to play - but it just doesn't turn on all at once," Adelman said of Williams. "The second time he's gotten more aggressive. Sometimes it takes a while for a guy to be ready and seize the opportunity. I think it's been good that he's been doing that. It really helps us."

As he did Thursday, Williams also helps the Timberwolves with his versatility. He started at small forward for Thursday's game, because of an injury to Andrei Kirilenko, despite playing most often at power forward.

"With the way our season has gone it's out of necessity," Adelman said. "We've had to throw him at the three and the four. We've changed our offense about 18 times."

All that, plus Love's All-Star presence at power forward, made life especially difficult for Williams as a rookie last season. He didn't get on the court as much as he wanted, averaging 21.5 minutes a game, and put up averages of 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds.

Those weren't the kinds of numbers that matched everyone's expectation of a No. 2 draft pick.

As a result, for the first time in his life, Williams was feeling some heat. Under the radar at La Mirada, the lowest-rated Wildcat recruit in the class of 2009, Williams was hardly that coming out of Arizona. He was the highest-drafted pick ever in Timberwolves history.

That's pressure.

"Coming out of high school and even in college, I never had pressure on myself to play well," Williams said. "I just took whatever was given to me and ran with it. A lot of people put pressure on me last year and I think it really got to me. I was trying so hard to play well but I just needed to get out there and play like I normally do.

"That's what I did in the last month and a half, and now it's started to turn around. I just play for myself, my family and my teammates. Not anyone else."

Contact Bruce Pascoe at bpascoe@azstarnet.com or 573-4145. On Twitter @BrucePascoe