NEWARK, N.J. — When Derrick Williams became the second player to stroll across the NBA draft stage Thursday, he did so with a bright red tie around his neck and an Arizona Wildcats Elite Eight ring on his finger.
The image was fitting.
One of the best Wildcats in history, who willed UA into an unexpectedly deep NCAA tournament run as a sophomore last season, Williams tied Mike Bibby as the highest-ever pick from Arizona when the Minnesota Timberwolves selected him No. 2 overall.
“Coach (Lute) Olson knows better than anybody, but you’d have to put Derrick up as one of our all-time greats,” said UA coach Sean Miller, while watching the draft from the Prudential Center stands. “He led his team to a
30-win season and a Pac-10 championship and almost to the Final Four.
“That’s the other component: It’s not as if he just had a good individual career. He really led his team and … he’s been such a bridge from the uncertain times to hopefully better times in our future.”
Bibby, who was picked No. 2 overall by the Vancouver Grizzlies, had the benefit of playing at the peak of the Olson era. But he does have a better ring than Williams does.
“Mike Bibby’s one of the greatest to ever play at U of A, and I’m honored to share that title with him,” Williams said. “But he has a one-up — he won the title at Arizona. It’s just a great honor to be up there with him and be in this position. There’s just a small percentage of people who get this opportunity, and I want to take advantage of it.”
Despite previous speculation to the contrary, it appears Williams will get that opportunity in Minnesota.
While Williams entered the draft heavily projected as the No. 2 pick, it wasn’t clear if the Timberwolves would take Williams or trade the pick. The Timberwolves, after all, already have similarly skilled forwards in Michael Beasley, Anthony Randolph and Wes Johnson.
But Minnesota GM David Kahn told fans at a draft party that the club is sticking with the pick. “We’re not trading Derrick Williams,” Kahn said. “He will be in a Timberwolves uniform next year.”
That’s good news for Williams, the Southern Californian who joked about “negative 30” degree temperatures in Minneapolis before the draft but said after his selection Thursday that he wanted to stay with the team.
“I want to be there,” he said. “I want to make that team better, that whole franchise. I want to get them from a losing record to a winning record. That’s my job, and that’s why they chose me. So we’ll see what they do with it. But I want to stay.”
The Wolves could trade either Beasley or Randolph if they keep Williams, but they also have to decide on a coach. They have not told coach Kurt Rambis if he will be back next season, though Williams said he is not focused on that issue.
“I’m just going to get my body into the best shape possible,” Williams said. “If he’s the coach, that’s great.”
Williams worked out for the Timberwolves a week earlier, showcasing his perimeter skills against a group of guards, and said he believed the team connected with him.
“Immediately,” he said. “I felt like I was really comfortable. I fit in with them really well, on and off the court. One of (Minnesota’s) coaches said, ‘He’s a monster,’ and I really took that as a compliment. I’m always eager to learn, and I think that’s why they picked me, because I’m ready to learn.”
Kahn indicated in a Timberwolves release that the club was intrigued by his upside. The 6-foot-9-inch, 245-pound Williams turned 20 last month.
“Derrick is a talented player and a fine young man who had an incredible season for Arizona this past year,” Kahn said. “His improvement the past few seasons has been tremendous, and we believe he has even more room to grow. His athleticism, shooting touch and ability to get to the free-throw line will be valuable assets for our team.”
No matter how difficult it is to fit in.
“I’ll work my butt off to get in that starting rotation,” Williams said. “They told me to do that to make me better, and I think that with everybody being so young on that team, I think you can push each other.”
Miller said the Timberwolves would benefit from Williams off the court, too.
“As good as a player he is he’s even a better kid,” Miller said. “Minnesota and that organization and that city — they’re getting somebody they’re really going to love as a person.
“One of the great compliments you can give Derrick was if he was our eighth man and he was coming back next year for his junior year, he would be one of your favorite players because how he really is and how hard he works. He never has a bad day. He’s the same every day.”
He might be even if there’s an NBA lockout, and even if the Timberwolves struggle whenever the season does begin.
And even if the spotlight won’t leave the rookie who will make a guaranteed $10 million over his first two years if the current NBA rookie salary scale is retained.
“It’s difficult on all these guys,” Miller said. “There’s so much expected and so much pressure. I think Derrick he has
to stay the same. If he doesn’t change, great things are going to happen for him. And I have no doubt he won’t.”