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The brilliance of Grant Williams in 42 seconds

Grant Williams is a special basketball player, and all it takes to see that is 42 seconds of play.

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

I hope this—staying up until 1 or 2 am to write—becomes a regular occurrence over the next decade or so. I have a life. I’m not completely nocturnal. But I have no problem doing so when Grant Williams gives me absolutely no say in the matter.

In the Celtics’ second Summer League game, Williams scored 5 points on 2-for-6 shooting. He collected 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and a block. He was the best player on the floor by a wide margin and demonstrated why he’s a special prospect.

Here are the first 20 seconds we’re going to look at:

Grant starts the possession guarding the smaller, presumably quicker Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. He slides with Abdur-Rahkman to the nail, where the Cleveland guard pitches the ball to Marques Bolden. As Bolden initiates a half-hearted dribble hand off, Grant takes charge for the first time during the possession, orchestrating an off-ball switch with Carsen Edwards.

According to conventional positional designations, Williams on the 6’11”, 250-pound Bolden is still a mismatch, but it’s a more palatable one than Edwards attempting to check the traditional center. Nonetheless, Bolden sees opportunity on the smaller defender.

Bolden, perceiving a mismatch on the 6’7.5” Williams directs JaCorey Williams out of the corner to clear out any potential help on the post-up—he wants to go at Grant one-on-one.

In the meantime, Celtics center Chinanu Onuaku, who had switched on to Cleveland’s Williams earlier in the possession, sees a window to scram switch with Grant and body Bolden himself. Grant is having none of it.

Bolden proceeds to post-up Grant. He gets absolutely stonewalled. This is supposed to be Grant’s weakness. He’s not supposed to be able to bang with traditional centers. But he can, because he’s a physical freak. His strength is special. He benched the most reps at the NBA combine in Chicago. Talk up vertical leaping and wingspan all you want, but here is the concrete application of special strength translating to positive impact on basketball.

Grant isn’t done yet, though, because he is a savant. Bolden realizes he’s no match for Grant and wisely relinquishes the rock to Abdur-Rahkman, who picked up a step on a lackadaisical Edwards. Grant sees this.

So he slides over, rises with perfect verticality, and alters the shot, which barely hits backboard. Shot-clock violation.

It’s a magnificent possession. Grant takes complete control of the defense on multiple occasions, effectively communicates his orders to his defensive subordinates, stonewalls a guy he shouldn’t be able to stonewall, and finishes the play as a rim protector. This is the single-possession illustration of the term “defensive anchor.” Grant owned the whole 20 seconds. He ensured that the framework away from the primary action was sound while shutting down the secondary action single-handedly.

Now let’s look at 22 seconds in which Grant is almost entirely uninvolved in the on-ball aspect of the play—he’s purely anchoring:

Ignore Grant for a moment and direct your attention toward the ball. Dylan Windler brings the ball up the court, receiving a ball screen from Bolden. The Celtics switch the ball screen, leaving gargantuan center Tacko Fall on the sharpshooting Windler and Javonte Green checking the rolling Bolden.

Here’s where Grant comes into the play. From the weak side corner, Grant rotates over to take away the rim from Bolden. Simultaneously, he motions Green to the corner, again judging that Bolden’s advantage over him is far slimmer than over one of the Celtics’ guards.

Bolden then sprints to the arc to set a ball screen, yet Grant seemingly ignores him. However, this is the furthest thing from carelessness. Instead, Grant is being remarkably proactive.

Fall in the corner guarding Windler might not seem like such a catastrophic mismatch—it’s just a guy standing in the corner. But consider who Windler is: a lethal off-movement 3-point shooter and cutter. At any moment, he could be wide open from 3 or at the rim. Grant doesn’t want to concede that and spots a window.

As Bolden races to the 3-point line, Grant runs in the opposite direction, instead sending Fall to handle the ball screen and neutralizing the Windler threat. There’s an added benefit to Grant’s proactivity.

Fall, at 7’7” with a 10’ 2.5’’ standing reach, is a rather imposing rim protector. Williams, for all his defensive brilliance, is somewhat limited as a rim protector by his 6’ 9.75’’ wingspan. What unfolds is what you’d expect when someone goes at Fall at the rim: Naz Mitrou-Long must alter his attempt to avoid the mammoth center and can’t finesse it home.

And he’s still not done. In the ensuing scramble situation, Grant picks up Mitrou-Long, and as the Cleveland guard dribbles along the arc, Grant calls for one more switch to relieve Edwards of the Bolden mismatch once again.

Maybe Grant wasn’t thinking about optimizing the team’s rim protection. Maybe he wasn’t even conscious of impending death by Windler. It’s quite possible he just saw an opportunity to return Fall to his primary defensive assignment and seized it. But given who Grant Williams is, his track record as a player, the countless jaw-droppingly brilliant plays I’ve seen from him, I’d like to think it all factored in.

When trying to analyze a player’s thought process, you are invariably doing two things: guessing and projecting (as Cole Zwicker explained extraordinarily well in a similar piece on Williams here). Yet, I’m somewhat confident that this played in, at least subconsciously. And if it didn’t, you still have Grant expertly orchestrating an entire defense yet again.

Through two Summer League games, Grant Williams has played 39 minutes and 19 seconds. In those minutes, the Celtics are +41. In the 41 minutes and 41 seconds Williams has sat, the Celtics are -3. Raw plus-minus is exceptionally noisy—Williams is not solely responsible for a 44-point differential through 80 minutes of Summer League basketball.

But it’s not an accident that the team is comically better with Williams on the floor than off either. He’s a freak: physically, thanks to beyond upper-tier functional strength and mentally, due to thousands upon thousands of reps and dedication and special recognition and awareness. Grant Williams is obscenely, obnoxiously good at basketball. If I have to lose sleep because of that, so be it.

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