When the Chicago Bulls travel to opposing arenas, DeMar DeRozan maintains a habit of monitoring the basketball education of power forward Patrick Williams.
DeRozan points at each retired jersey hung in the rafters. Williams tells DeRozan what he knows about each player crystallized in the opposing team’s history book. Some names spark immediate recognition as legends and role models of the league. Others require a lesson — sometimes from DeRozan, sometimes from assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, often on Williams’ own time.
The earlier annals of the NBA provide a treasure trove of knowledge. And for Williams, studying the league’s history has helped define his game in his third season with the Bulls.
“What it took to be good back then, it takes the same thing now,” Williams told the Tribune. “Energy, effort, hard work. Obviously the game has changed, but the formula is the same.”
At 21, Williams — averaging 9.5 points and 4.1 rebounds — hasn’t lived through much of the NBA’s deep history, which is why DeRozan feels it’s so important for him and other young players to look to the past.
The athleticism required to compete in the NBA has changed drastically through the decades, a fact DeRozan feels makes it essential to watch older film. When players couldn’t rely on athletics alone, DeRozan feels they turned instead to a more pure technique.
“You can learn so many fundamental skills from a lot of older guys,” DeRozan told the Tribune. “The game is in such a beautiful place now, but you can learn so much understanding how all the old-school guys were so creative at scoring in different ways. Not just the traditional way of today’s game where it’s layups and 3-pointers. There’s so much to the game of basketball from every generation that you can learn from.”
DeRozan continues this tutelage through social media, sending Williams clips of his favorite players on Instagram. Both players track accounts such as HoopFilms, which cut up highlights of both well-known stars and more niche players.
Social media is an easy entry point for players and fans to discover athletes from prior eras. For instance, Williams had known of Chris Webber only as a member of the Fab Five at Michigan until he saw a highlight reel of the forward’s 15-year NBA career.
Williams said DeRozan often sends him clips of Kobe Bryant, his long-time mentor and idol. But he also tries to introduce Williams to players who offer specific tools that could improve his approach to the game.
These suggestions span decades and position groups: Andre Miller, a journeyman point guard drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1999 who was crafty at posting up despite his smaller frame; Rasheed Wallace, a longtime power forward who won a championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and showcased how a larger forward can still dominate as a stretch-four; and Ben Wallace, a defensive specialist who carved out a legacy for his rim protection with the Detroit Pistons.
“The one thing I always try to stress to (Williams) is to understand the footwork, the creativity, and don’t limit yourself to just looking at one type of player,” DeRozan said.
This study of other players isn’t just limited to the past. Williams often watches film on other two-way players in the league whom he hopes to emulate — Mikhal Bridges, OG Anunoby and, of course, Kawhi Leonard.
Comparison has been a constant in Williams’ young career, and not always to his preference. He was only 19 when he earned the nickname of “The Paw,” a nod to the similarities between himself and Leonard. While Williams remains flattered by the comparison, he doesn’t want it to define expectations of his play.
“You get labeled in this league and it’s kind of hard to shake that,” Williams said. “For me, it’s not so much comparing our play. It’s seeing, ‘OK, he does this really well, this is something maybe I could add to my game.’ ”
Williams, the No. 4 pick in the 2020 draft, knows that his NBA education will be an ongoing pursuit. Delving into history has helped him grow a deeper appreciation for the sport and its less-represented players — and Williams now feels he has a stronger grasp on what it takes to thrive in the NBA, regardless of era.
“One similarity between all the great players now and then, they all seem to have a pace of a game,” Williams said. “They mastered the pace of the game, they mastered a mental aspect of the game and they’re playing a game within a game. They know how teams are going to guard them and they know how to take advantage of that. It’s just a matter of having that mental edge.”