Williams has a lot to prove in NBA

Some analysts peg the ex-Gophers player as a second-round draft pick.

Gopher basketball player Rodney Williams practices with the Timberwolves Wednesday morning at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

Bridget Bennett

Gopher basketball player Rodney Williams practices with the Timberwolves Wednesday morning at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

Jace Frederick

Rodney Williams wowed Gophers fans with highlight dunks and spectacular athleticism throughout his four-year career at the University of Minnesota.

Now that he’s graduated from the team, some analysts are projecting Williams to be a second-round pick in the NBA draft at the end of the month. But some say he’ll need to do more to warrant playing time in the NBA.

“Everyone knows he’s always been a great athlete,” said Flip Saunders, president of operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, after Williams’ workout with the team last week. “But at this level, you just don’t get by with athleticism.”

Saunders said Williams needs to work his ball handling, shooting and perimeter game to succeed at the professional level.

Williams’ shooting troubles were well documented during his time with the Gophers. He shot 25 percent beyond the three-point line during his collegiate career. That’s well below average for an NBA small forward, the position Williams said he sees himself playing professionally.

The Gophers coaching staff unsuccessfully tried to fix Williams’ shooting form during his time at the University, even placing straps on his left hand to prevent his thumb from touching the ball, former head coach Tubby Smith said.

Williams could have spent more time working on his shooting and ball handling in school.

“Every once in a while, I think that,” Williams said, “but I’ve just got to look forward. I can’t take back what I did and what I didn’t do.”

Williams’ lack of improvement in those areas contributed to his inconsistency with the Gophers, ESPN college basketball writer Myron Medcalf said. Williams scored more than 10 points just once in his final 10 games with the team.

“He didn’t develop on his own the way that I think he could have in four years at the U,” Medcalf said.

Smith said Williams’ shoulder injury last season aided in his inconsistency, as did the fact that he and fellow forward Trevor Mbakwe played similar roles. Smith said he expects Williams to make big strides with his shooting and ball handling without the commitment to education looming over him.

“Those are areas he needs to work on,” Smith said, “but you’re not going to find a guy more willing … especially now that he can focus on those things.”

Williams said he had gotten frustrated with himself for not playing up to expectations with the Gophers.

 “For me to be able to kind of get a fresh start and be able to go work on things I need to work on — I think that was good for me,” he said.

Smith said he thinks Williams will be a long-term player in the NBA and also said Williams has the athleticism to defend some of the league’s top wing players.

“He has a good feel for the game,” he said. “He’s a very intelligent basketball player, and he’s a very efficient player, so … he could play well in most systems in the NBA.”

Williams said he’s confident he’ll get drafted. If he’s taken in the second round, he’ll likely have to play his way onto a team through the NBA’s summer league. Only first-round selections are guaranteed contracts.

“Hopefully I can sneak on a team somewhere,” he said.