NBA

What the next level looks like for Celtics big man Robert Williams III

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Shams Charania of The Athletic released its latest NBA trade drop on Monday morning, and it reaffirmed several points about the Boston Celtics’ involvement in the Kevin Durant draft. Notably, according to Charania, Boston did not release Marcus Smart or Robert Williams III.

Smart is entrenched in the Celtics franchise as the oldest player, emotional leader and reigning Defensive Player of the Year. But Williams’ restraint also shows how popular he is on the roster and how critical he was to the NBA Finals in Boston last season.

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Williams broke out in 2021-22, averaging 10.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game with a stunning 73.6% clip from the floor. He landed on the All-Defensive Second Team and anchored one of the best defenses in the league. A year ago on Wednesday, Williams signed a four-year contract that could be worth up to $54 million. He’s already made it look like a huge bargain.

The 2018 first-round pick thrives in his classically defined archetype as a rim-protecting center, two-way rebounder, and lob finisher. Williams has already exhibited some elite traits in this role – traits that, if he never improved even slightly, would still be among the best in the world for years to come.

However, Williams’ role also clouds viewers’ visualizations of her next steps. At 24 and with a healthy season under his belt, Williams still has plenty of room to grow with the Celtics. But if he’s already so good at what he does and Boston rarely asks him to do anything else, what is the trajectory of his impact?

Fortunately, between Williams’ additional skills and his functional areas of improvement, he can continue to take on more responsibility as a young big man.

Celtics fans continually marveled at Williams’ passing flashes during his early seasons in the league. Its user support rate has been in the top 20% among centers for each of the past three years, according to Cleaning the Glass. And, despite a few touches outside of game-ending chances, Williams can dazzle with his vision.

When Boston brought in Williams as a setter, they often set him up at the top of the arc or slightly off on the wing. It’s amazing how big he is in this range despite posing no threat as a shooter or driver. Having Williams quarterback starting here also opens up opportunities for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to get off the ball and use their strength and speed to open up instead of handling the ball and creating.

It’s almost as if Tatum used a wide receiver option route in the clips above. In the first two games, Jayson slides screens and cuts to the basket as the Williams Rifles pass for layups. In the third clip, Tatum uses a Payton Pritchard flare screen and hits a three. The fourth clip is another flare screen, but both Williams and Tatum recognize the open space, and the first leads the superstar into a driving layup. For good measure, the last clip is Brown faking a similar pin and cutting to the basket.

With “Timelord” leading the show, off-ball defenders need to grab Boston’s dynamic duo, and it opens up some easy reads for him, like this one to Grant Williams:

The reproach here is not with Williams III; rather, I wish the Celtics would put him in those positions more often. He has a high overall turnover rate, but rarely gives the ball away in these situations. This puts less of a burden on Tatum and Brown as self-creators and gets more players moving around the half court overall.

There is also an untapped intrigue with him in the high position. According to PBP Stats, Williams III had 84 nudges throughout the 2021-22 regular season. His 16.7% assist rate ranked second among 99 players with at least 75 elbow touches, behind only Memphis Grizzlies big man Steven Adams. Now, some of those touches are just transfers. But others are Williams connecting with shooters on a short roll, or directing traffic out of a post key.

Jared Weiss of The Athletic detailed how Boston’s offense has moved away from post-ups over the season, and how adding more back with Williams involved might make sense. Given Williams’ vision and the success that comes when players revolve around him, I would agree.

Any individual scoring development like a mid-range jump shot would be the icing on the cake, as Celtics Blog’s Trevor Hass wrote. But head coach Ime Udoka already has untapped potential ahead of him in the form of Williams as a hub. Manifesting more touches for a secondary option is much easier said than done, but incorporating more Williams could seriously speed up an often stagnant Celtics offense.

Defensively, however, it falls to Williams to improve his switchability.

The 6-foot-9 center is a remarkable drifter and shot blocker – in the highest echelon of rim players across the league. He hit his defensive stride hard in the streak because Udoka and the coaching staff put him in defensive positions to succeed. Sporting News writer Stephen Noh has elaborated on how the Celtics kept Williams out of the spotlight on the ball as much as possible and made his job a spin and a crush.

It’s great, and it’s proven successful enough to bring Boston within two games of a championship. It also required luck and heavy weight from Al Horford, who took advantage of good health to play one of the best switching defenses we’ve seen all season at 35.

Horford, now 36, cannot expect to carry the same burden throughout another title push, and the Celtics have only one other center in line for possible minutes of rotation to Luke Kornet. Williams will need to defend in ball screen coverage and switch to guards at times.

Last year, it didn’t go so well. Boston started out going 1-5 on defense and changed that as the year progressed. Who knows if it was Williams who brought about the change, but his struggles certainly played a part.

As seen in the clip above, Williams can’t move with the lateral quickness needed to stop root drives. He has to rely on his length to catch up when beaten, and while that leads to highlight recovery blocks, it’s not a failsafe he should want to rely on. Williams is also historically a foul-prone perimeter player who bites on counterfeits far too often, though he tempered those temptations last year.

I would say Williams improved in the times he had to go into isolations later in the season. It looked like he was playing those possessions more conservatively and was willing to give up all three balls, knowing he had the vertical pop to land shots like this:

Don’t expect Williams to become a unicorn-like defender who can smother players anywhere on the pitch. If Williams can at least contain the drives and get the defenders to think about the threat of a block, it’s a win for Boston. He already has the world rim protection in his pocket.

Williams is already a top-notch starting center whose talents can help Boston get back to the Finals. If he overcomes a heavier passing workload and progresses as a defender on the ball, we could be talking about a sub-All-Star type center next season.

Robert Williams III is only pointing out that the Celtics, even after reaching June, still have room for improvement.

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