It’s been a tumultuous week for rookie Robert Williams. After opening the season on the outskirts of the Celtics’ rotation, shuttling back and forth from the G-League Red Claws and rarely seeing NBA minutes outside of Gino Time, a series of injuries to crucial pieces of the Boston front court pressed the Texas A&M product into action. Over Boston’s first 25 games, Williams saw just 33 minutes of playing time total. This week, against the New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks, he played 56.
Williams kicked the week off by taking the Pelicans to task, grabbing 11 rebounds and swatting three shots — two of them off Davis himself. Two days later, he’d keep the momentum rolling with six points, six rebounds and two blocks against the Wizards, including taking the floor to open the overtime period against the Washington Wizards — substantially higher-leverage minutes than garbage time. Finally, he picked up five blocks in a span of less than 10 minutes in the second half against the Hawks.
After his performance against the Pelicans, Brad Stevens had nothing but praise for the rookie.
“I thought Robert did a lot of good things,” said Stevens. “When you’re shooting jumpers and Robert’s in the vicinity, you feel him. When you’re shooting around the rim and he’s in the vicinity, you feel him. Offensively, he was active; he got his hands on some offensive rebounds, tip-ins, kicked it out. I thought he was good.”
“He’s different than all the other bigs we’ve got,” added Marcus Morris, “Down the line, I think he’s gonna continue to help us.”
One player in particular had some personal insight into Williams’ big week: Boston’s elder statesman, Al Horford.
“Being thrown in that position, against perhaps the best big in the NBA, it’s a huge challenge,” said Horford. “And he was very composed. He stuck to the game plan and things we needed to do, and he had a tremendous impact. I was very impressed.”
If anyone knows a thing or two about being pressed into action against the NBA’s best so early into your career, it’s Horford. Back in 2007, after the Atlanta Hawks made him the third overall pick of the NBA Draft, Horford’s very first NBA action came against the Dallas Mavericks — specifically, against Dirk Nowitzki, fresh off his legendary 50-40-90 season.
“That was a game that I’ll never forget,” said Horford. “I actually didn’t get to guard Dirk that much because, at the time, I was playing the five, so I was guarding [DeSagana] Diop. But yeah, going up against Dirk, I was in awe. I don’t think Rob was in awe of Anthony Davis, but I was of Dirk.”
Horford acquitted himself well in that debut, scoring nine points and grabbing 10 rebounds on the way to a seven-point victory over Dallas. The fun didn’t stop there, though; the very next game, he would face Rasheed Wallace and the Detroit Pistons, who would hold him to just three points (1-of-6 shooting) and five turnovers in a one-point victory over Atlanta. And three games after that? Kevin Garnett and the eventual-champion Boston Celtics, who bulldozed the Hawks by 23 points despite a career-best 16 points from Horford. Talk about a warm welcome to the NBA.
With that first week in mind, did he have any advice for Williams before his big night against the Pelicans? “Not necessary,” said Horford.
“Honestly, I didn’t really say anything to him. One thing I’ve noticed about Rob is that he is not afraid. He just went out and played with a lot of confidence.”
This week, that confidence was on display both on and off the court. After the Pelicans game, Williams himself acknowledged the significance of the match-up — but for him, it remained business as usual.
“I’ve definitely watched [Davis] highlights. Even at Kentucky, I was a big fan. But he’s an opponent now,” Williams said. “It was a great assignment, a great assignment.”
Ultimately, this week has no doubt been invaluable for Robert Williams. For the first time, the Celtics got a close look at how their young center responded to adversity, and all things considered, he passed with flying colors. While there’s certainly still room for improvement, and his NBA minutes may become scarce once again as the team returns to full strength, the Celtics now know they have an ace up their sleeve. When opportunity knocks again, one thing is certain: Robert Williams will be ready.
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