Williams was the best Celtic on the floor against the Pacers.
Remember the nickname “Timelord?” It’s a mocking yet adoring moniker given to an athletically gifted but skillfully raw rookie who missed a flight within weeks of being on the job. It seems like when we eventually look back on Robert Williams’ career, the “Timelord” era will be seen as a phase of patience and improvement.
Since Williams became a certified starter on the Boston Celtics, the moniker has seldom been used. We often hear people refer to him as “Lob Williams” or simply “Williams.” Perhaps it’s because the growth in the fourth-year big’s game has been so profound that he’s almost unrecognizable compared to the Timelord version of himself, or maybe it’s just that the fanbase has grown to respect his contributions enough that a playful nickname no longer carries the weight it once did.
Whatever the reason, one thing is becoming increasingly apparent: Williams is fast becoming an influential on-court presence.
There’s no point rehashing Williams’ blocking ability. Enough has been put into the ether about that already. Another area of the Louisiana native’s defense has leaped these past few weeks that has seen him become impactful away from the rim; his reading of passing lanes.
Williams ended the game against the Indiana Pacers with four steals to his name, but two of those were “gimmies,” while the final one was essentially a no-hope heave. Yet, the steal shown above displays the ever-improving big’s court awareness and reading of the game. As soon as the Pacers’ fired off an errant pass, Williams began stalking the lane, knowing that Myles Turner was the likely beneficiary as his team tried to keep the rock inbounds. Follow Williams on this play, and watch how he anticipates the pass and bursts into the path of the ball as it’s in the air.
While the steal is a nice bonus, it doesn’t provide the whole story. A glance over at the box score in the morning while drinking a cup of coffee would only tell you about the passes that Texas A&M product pilfered but wouldn’t clue you into how many he genuinely altered. Honestly, no stat will give you all of the information, well, at least none that are publicly available, but I find you can get a fuller picture when pairing statistics together.
For steals, the perfect partner is deflections. Tipping a ball off its intended trajectory is as impactful as securing the steal. Sure, you’re not going to get a fast-break opportunity out of it, but you will give the defense valuable seconds to reset and bunker down. Against the Pacers, Williams had a team-leading six deflections to go with his four steals. So, suppose we operate under the assumption that the Pacers game had a league-average 100 possessions per team. In that case, Williams directly impacts 10% of those possessions just with his activity within the seams. If we factor in the bouncy big’s sixteen shot contests, that impact percentage would also rise towards the 20% mark.
Jaylen Brown: Robert Williams should be in the category for first-team all defense
— John Karalis (@John_Karalis) January 11, 2022
Beyond Williams’ growth at reading the game on defense, he’s also developed into a far more complete screener. Against the Pacers, Williams registered three screen assists that translated into 7 points. Still, beyond those trackable numbers, the Celtics big developed into a prominent physical presence when screening for his teammates.
Of course, Williams is still an effective rim-runner, so he will always prefer to slip a screen before contact is made to generate a lob opportunity.
There’s more to screening than simply slipping or standing firm, though. Williams is slowly mastering the art of flipping a screen to provide ball-handlers additional opportunities to attack space. If the defender reacts to the initial screen, Williams will flip the angle and allow the ball-handler to go in a different direction. While we’ve seen the 24-year-old big add these re-screens to his arsenal for a while now, it’s taken him some time to master the fine art.
Here’s an excellent example from the Pacers game. Williams initiates the dribble hand-off for Jayson Tatum, sees the defender has gone under the hand-off/screen and flips the angle to provide Tatum with a path to the hoop. Little nuances like those screening sets make the difference to an offense when the defense has set up in the half-court and can lead to scoring opportunities.
The only downside to Williams’ current game is his lack of scoring ability outside of dunks and putbacks. While some people are calling for the recently-extended big to develop a post-game, I think there are other areas where he could improve his offensive repertoire that wouldn’t risk slowing the game down. For example, you would want Williams operating as a secondary or tertiary playmaker in an ideal world, providing additional passing and playmaking without expecting him to put the ball on the floor too much.
Indeed then, a mid-range jump shot makes more sense. That would force defenses to pick their poison as Williams rolled to the hoop. You can either cut off his roll with a substantial tag or by sliding a body into the paint and force him to beat you with a jumper or by swinging the rock or take away the passing game and risk ending up on a highlight reel.
To be honest, it doesn’t matter which way the Celtics decide to go in Williams’ development. The fact of the matter is, their former 27th pick is fast becoming one of the most impactful centers in the league. Granted, Williams isn’t in that top-tier big man discussion, and without rapidly developing a three-point shot, likely never will be. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Celtics have a player who, should his development continue on this current trajectory, wouldn’t look out of place as the starting center on a championship-contending roster.
For all the talk of a Big Three and trading for the team’s next star player, we would all do well to remember that Williams’ star is still rising, and he could well be the third prong in a potent offensive trident. And if the Celtics believe that to be the case, and Williams continues to prove his health is on the up, then any potential move in the coming weeks should focus on a ball-handler to help expedite the next steps in his development.