The Celtics don’t have a dominant big that they can build a team around. Their best players are wings and ball handlers. So, instead, Brad Stevens has opted to use the 5-spot as more of a complimentary position.
In the first preseason game on Sunday, Robert Williams was a surprise inclusion in the starting five. Many had predicted that either Daniel Theis, the most experienced player in the center corp, or newcomer and eight-year vet Enes Kanter would get the nod. Theis was unavailable against the Hornets and could still get a chance, but it was The Timelord who got the first crack at it.
Coming out of Texas A&M, Williams was known as a pogo stick center who could change the game defensively with his athleticism. He was raw on offense, but over the summer, showed a propensity for passing. In Vegas, Williams said, “I love working out of the high post. I love passing the ball. Anytime I get to be a passer, I like it.”
Williams started the Celtics’ preseason with this rim run and alley-oop dunk, but for the most part, he played above the break and acted as a screen setter and play initiator off the pass. Under the new NBA measurements, Williams came in at 6’8--two inches shorter than at the NBA Draft combine--but his 7’5.5 wingspan gives him the length to be a dexterous passer. He may not be a scoring threat with his mid-range jumper yet, but with the starters, he proved to be an effective passing big.
Gordon Hayward obviously gets more credit for this bucket with his aggressive drive, but this play illustrates where Williams could be operating in the future. He doesn’t have a three-point shot yet, but NBA defensive rules dictate that his defender, Cody Zeller, has to be above the free throw line. That gives Hayward enough room to go baseline.
Kanter is yin to Williams’ yang. The Timelord may play above the rim, but right now, he’s not exactly comfortable wrestling with elephants in the paints. Kanter is. After Monday’s practice, Stevens in effect cemented him into the second unit.
“Kanter can do things and some things he does really well and I think that’s just unique. He’s obviously going to play,” Stevens said. “We’re trying to figure out if it’s with the starting unit or best to bring him off (the bench) so you can play through him a little bit more on the block and those type of things. That’s probably the case when we start all those guys on the wing.”
On Sunday, Kanter went 4-for-4 from the field, all on shots near the rim. More importantly, Kanter commands attention. A big rolling to the rim shrinks a defense. Twice, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart hit Kanter off a pick-and-roll.
Even without scoring, Kanter’s gravity alone can affect the game. He hits the paint after off ball screen for Smart and that forces Semi Ojeleye’s defender to tag him in the key. That’s enough space for Walker to hit him cross court for a three.
On Friday, the size and length of the Magic poses a very different problem than the wing-heavy Hornets. For Stevens, there’s an ideal way he’d like to play (based on his personnel), but games aren’t played in a vacuum and there will be times when the opposing teams will dictate how the Celtics will have to play. For example, against a front line of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac, Boston might be forced to play two traditional bigs with Williams and Kanter side-by-side. There’s also Theis and Vincent Poirier to get in the mix. This is the preseason puzzle that Stevens will have to solve over the next two weeks because Game #1 is against the Philadelphia 76ers, Joel Embiid, and Al Horford, the player that eliminated most of these matchup issues before.