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How Robert Williams Elevates the Celtics

Apr 4, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III (44) shoots a floater over Charlotte Hornets center Bismack Biyombo (8) defending during the third quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics have lacked some pop on both ends. The offense feels slow and stagnant and often ends up in isolation. Defensively, they have the perimeter defenders to compete, but they are missing an athletic rim protector. Robert Williams might help mend some of those issues for the Celtics.

“Time Lord” or Robert Williams has established him as the starting big in the Celtics starting rotation after Daniel Theis was moved at the deadline. He has an intriguing upside with his mobility, physical tools, and a solid offensive I.Q.

The Celtics have had a void at the center spot this season. Theis competed on both ends and could stretch the floor, but he isn’t as athletically gifted. Tristan Thompson’s deal looks like a disaster based on his on-court value. He might be bringing some leadership to the locker room, but it hasn’t translated to wins.

Williams can elevate the Celtics and solidify their playoff spot. Fans have begged for Time Lord to get more minutes. While he did have the occasional defensive lapse, only reps will get rid of those issues. If the coaching staff keeps yanking him because of these mistakes, it will be hard to improve. Consistent time and role are the way for him to become a full-time starter.

A Playmaker at Center

Apr 2, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III (44) dunks the ball during the first half against the Houston Rockets at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

While it’s a small sample size, Williams has an outstanding vision for a center. He’s averaged 4.6 assists in the five games he’s started as of April 6th. He had eight against the Rockets on April 2nd. The coaching staff trusts his vision.

Williams is a guy who can make passes from the top and allows them to invert their offense. Instead of asking Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum to bend the defense every time down, they have Williams to flip the action and allow them to work off the ball. They can also access newly acquired Evan Fournier and Aaron Nesmith as movement shooters coming off dribble handoffs.

The Celtics offense has been highly stagnant this year as they’re 24th in assists per game. Tatum and Brown prefer to get into their stepbacks and sidesteps to get themselves shots. They don’t always generate rim pressure to open up looks. Walker is too small to access certain angles to kick the ball. If Williams can give them a little playmaking, it makes their lives easier on offense.

Williams could try to emulate the role Al Horford had in Boston. Horford had lots of success in Boston, working as a hub of the offense and feeding their perimeter creators. The Celtics need that offensive jolt from the center spot. Williams can’t stretch the floor to the level Theis could, but Williams has shown touch from the midrange as well. It’s a little shot that could end up expanding to the three-point line.

Lob Threat with I.Q

Williams has outstanding measurements, which allows him to catch lobs as a roll man. He’s a bit undersized at 6’8, but he has a 7’6 wingspan and can get up for lobs, which vertically spaces the floor for the Celtics. He can finish a lob but also make smart passes in the short roll.

The Celtics haven’t had a bouncy big to catch lobs. Al Horford, Daniel Theis, and Tristan Thompson are all floor-bound centers. Williams isn’t tall, but he can jump and use his mobility to get out of rolls fast. The Celtics ball-handlers could do a better job seeking him out in lobs, but it’s understandable since they haven’t played with a vertical spacer like Williams.

Defense

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - FEBRUARY 17: Robert Williams III #44 of the Boston Celtics looks to pass against the Denver Nuggets during the second half at TD Garden on February 17, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Because of Williams’s leaping ability and wingspan, he can meet players at the rim and block or deter shots. His mobility allows him to switch or contain screening actions, which bodes well for his ability to stay on the floor come playoff time.

However, there is a reason why the coaching staff was reluctant to give him the starting job. He will have some defensive lapses, but that should be fixed over time. The main problem is that he can sometimes get bullied on the block. He can match guys vertically, but a physically dominant center like Joel Embiid can bury him under the basket or bait him into fouls. In their game against the Sixers on April 6th, Williams dealt with foul trouble the whole game and ended up fouling out.

This game was one of his first against Embiid for an entire game. He has this experience under his belt and might not fall for the same tricks Embiid likes to use. The thing is, Williams is just not physically suited to guard Embiid. He’s way lighter and small. It’s going to take a concerted effort to force the ball out of his hands and make him catch away from the basket. Williams might be able to bother Embiid with quickness and reach, but Embiid has an edge.

Assessing Overall Impact

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 14: Robert Williams III #44 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the game against the Houston Rockets on March 14, 2021 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images)
Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

Williams allows the Celtics more options on offense because of his passing ability. He gives them another look to go to coming down the stretch to solidify a playoff spot. He also performs the necessary defensive tasks for a modern big: the ability to play in drop coverage and defend the rim and contain on the perimeter a bit.

In the playoffs, the extent of his role will be determined if he can get rid of those lapses and show some fight on Embiid. If he can bother Embiid by denying him post touches and not falling for his foul-baiting trick, he will find himself on the court for significant minutes since he is a plus on offense. In the end, his lack of height and strength compared to Embiid might end up playing him off the floor. The Celtics might be better off going small with Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams and doubling as Nate Duncan points out.

Overall, Williams gives the Celtics an offensive jolt and a rim-runner, but his minutes get a little murky when they play a dominant big like Embiid.

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