Despite all the foibles that the Celtics have displayed en route to their disappointing 12-10 start, the most determined of the Celtics’ fanbase have found some things to latch onto. Perhaps foremost among them? Exciting first-round rookie Robert “Timelord” Williams.
The Celtics have an immensely deep roster — perhaps the most complex in the league — but as I discussed this past week, one of the most complicated aspects of the team may well be the front court. The healthy rotation features three true front court players — Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis — and, in an NBA that continues to downsize in favor of versatility, a sizable chunk of the team’s “power forward” minutes have been soaked up by small-ball lineups featuring players like Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Semi Ojeleye. Even for proven NBA players like Theis, it’s hard to find minutes at times.
Even still, in the brief time he’s appeared on the court for the big-league team, it’s becoming hard to deny that Williams appears to be something different. Just ask consummate veteran Morris, pioneer of the “Bench With Attitude” persona:
When he gets a chance to go out there and really contribute to this team, he’s going to be special. His mindset and how hard he works, the intangibles, things you just can’t teach -- I think he’s going to be special for this team.
Morris’ feelings have been echoed by a not-insubstantial portion of the Celtics’ fan base who feel that the team’s early season malaise could be remedied — at least in part — by a few doses of the Timelord’s frenetic, high-effort approach in the paint. Despite that feeling though, it hasn’t worked out that way; Williams has seen just 33 minutes total across the first 21 games of Boston’s season.
However, with Al Horford sidelined for rest, Friday’s match against the Cleveland Cavaliers brought about an opportunity. Tying his meager season-high with eight minutes played, Williams once again made his presence felt and loudly.
Let’s let Morris tell it in his own words:
Sheesh. The block was nice, but the dunk, from sitting the entire game -- that’s crazy.
Dunk, you say? Morris is, of course, referring to this electric alley-oop slam, less than a minute into Williams’ first (and only) shift in the game.
This performance was not a new phenomenon. Despite his exceptionally limited minutes, Williams entered the game having not missed a single shot this season; he was a perfect 5-for-5 — all dunks — and he recorded his fifth and sixth blocked shots of the season against Cleveland, good for a 6.5 mark per 36 minutes on the year. On a surface level, he’s looked like a shot in the arm for a team that has struggled with stagnancy through the one-quarter mark of the season.
Though the sample size is undeniably tiny, this all still begs the question: what is Robert Williams’ NBA role right now, and when will he see more significant minutes?
Both are difficult answers. While Williams is a unique talent, it may be hard to argue that he’s a more productive player at this stage than Baynes or Theis, who provide his chief competition for minutes on most nights. The Timelord hardly lacks for athleticism or energy, but he’s committing over seven fouls per 36 minutes, and struggles when switched into space against smaller, faster players. Both are emblematic issues of talented, raw rookie bigs, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable that Brad Stevens hasn’t pushed him into action in more competitive situations, considering the team’s lofty aspirations for the season.
Even despite Williams’ limitations, however, nights like Friday stand out as a little curious. While, as I mentioned, Williams tied a season-high for minutes against the Cavs, it felt like there were opportunities available to him against a Cavaliers’ frontcourt lacking Kevin Love. Stevens saw the opportunity for some creativity too — it just wasn’t Williams he turned to. Late in the first quarter, alongside Theis, he turned to little-used sophomore Guerschon Yabusele for an unusually long seven-minute shift into the start of the second. Yabusele played well enough during that stretch, canning his lone three-pointer of the night, but you have to wonder why Williams didn’t appear to be a consideration in that situation.
Look, Robert Williams is not going to be the player that “saves” the Boston Celtics. Among rookies, frontcourt players struggle much more than any other position. The Celtics need to find consistency from their core rotation of pieces, and Williams doesn’t add up to being a crucial piece of that right now. It’s frankly more valuable for him to accumulate some starts in the G-League than it is for him to grab something like two minutes of crunch time in your average blowout victory.
Still, it’s starting to feel like there’s some more room for the Timelord in the team’s regular season match-ups than he’s seen thus far. With Tristan Thompson dominating the boards for one of the Cavs’ few advantages on Friday night, it couldn’t have hurt to find Williams some minutes to battle him in the paint. Ditto the team’s two face-offs against the Knicks, who feature the defensively-uninspiring Enes Kanter and the equally-raw Mitchell Robinson as a center rotation. Arguably, those are the kinds of match-ups that don’t really even require “Gino Time” for the rookie to see the court.
Last year’s Celtics were, by and large, defined by incredibly young players stepping up to meet immense pressure and responsibility. While the stakes will almost certainly never get as high for Williams as they did for Jayson Tatum and Co., the Celtics should still consider carving out some competitive minutes for their endlessly talented rookie center. It might just be the best thing for team, both in the short- and long-term.