When Robert Williams was drafted 27th by the Boston Celtics, the feeling of unanimous excitement was one that hadn’t been shared in quite sometime after a Celtics first-round selection. No reputable mock drafts had Williams outside of the top 20, and there weren’t many that had him outside of the lottery. At 6’10” with a 7’6” wingspan, the bouncy Texas A&M prospect was considered the type of modern big that would survive in the new era of basketball. The Celtics, who have been building their team from the perimeter, needed a young prospect in the frontcourt as they continue their journey of sustainable success. Needless to say, a match was found.
Stevens said, "Danny and Mike really started talking about him around 17 or 18...Each pick, we were hoping more and more he'd be available at 27."— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) June 22, 2018
The Robert Williams story highlights the difference between scouting for college and the NBA.
Williams was the No. 50 ranked recruit in the Class of 2016, and he wasn’t even sure he could become an NBA player until he started playing at Texas A&M. The draw to him was obvious. He’s a big man who is elite in transition, can block shots, run the floor and play way above the rim.
Some of the nuances of his game are intriguing as well. Offensively, he has a bit of a post game against mismatches, and as a passer he has shown the ability to make basic reads at a high level.
Where he’ll make his real money is on the defensive end, where his tools showcase a rare ability to both defend on the perimeter and protect the rim. The two-time SEC defensive player of the year averaged 4.1 blocks per 40 minutes last season and showed off a strong ability to close out and heavily contest jump shots. He slides his feet well defensively and looks like someone who could defend most perimeter guys for a few dribbles once he adjusts to the speed of the NBA. His wingspan affords him the ability to give guys a big chunk of space so he can stay in front of them and still give strong contests when the shot goes up. He’s also a beast on the boards who grabbed down a 27.1 DRB%. Even though he doesn’t have the strongest fundamentals in terms of boxing out, he’s able to use his athletic gifts to fly over people for rebounds and is someone who could easily have 10-15 rebounds in a game.
The big question when it comes to Williams is transferability. How much of last year can we see as an indictment of him, and how much was it about the situation? Texas A&M was 297th in the country in 3pt percentage and lost their starting backcourt early in the season. Then, they decided to play Williams as a 4 instead of a 5 to make room for their junior big Tyler Davis. Furthermore, the team constantly had Williams playing on the perimeter offensively, where the looks he had to settle for are just things he won’t be asked to do in the NBA. They essentially were using a rim-running center as a power forward surrounded by players who couldn’t shoot. That’s just not a basketball environment that was going to breed growth in Williams.
With that being said, the free throw shooting is real, and the fact that he went down from 59% to 47.1% is not great. Even if Williams profiles as a strong defender and elite lob target, his inability to hit free throws will limit him from ever closing out a game.
So much of what makes the draft is situation and fit. Williams was an outcast in Texas A&M whose value as a college big decreased his percieved value of what it takes to be an NBA big. A team like Boston isn’t looking for a big who wants 15 shots a game, they need a guy who’s okay being a defensive anchor and lob target.
“He’s a rim protector and a rebounder and can play above the rim on both ends of the court. We don’t have much of that at least not at the level he could do it.”
Williams has already shown some of the foundational talent that has made a player like Clint Capela invaluable to a 65-win Rockets team. Now it’s up to Stevens and co. to build their own boogeyman in the paint.