Typically, NBA rookies are able to impact the game on offense. The long term adjustment to the NBA usually comes on the defensive side of the ball, mastering scouting reports and being positionally sound on every possession over an 82-game season.
Grant Williams had the opposite type of rookie campaign. Defensively, he provided immediate value as a strong-bodied forward who is great with angles, was ready to communicate from day one and was sharp with his help defense responsibilities. The rookie from Tennessee was far less crisp on offense, battling an inconsistent jump shot and finding few tangible ways to make his presence felt.
As a high-character young man, Williams has done the right things off the court to soak up as much as he can from his teammates and coaches. During the quarantine period, he moved in with Kemba Walker in Charlotte to form a strong bond with the veteran point guard. He prepared for playing the 5 in less than 24 hours and picked up their playbook instantly. You can’t help but adore his infectious personality and how great of a teammate he was.
Always prepared and at the ready, Williams’ job was to embrace the role as emergency do-it-all forward while not being satisfied with it. It’s on him to keep adding facets to his game so he becomes more than just a solid band-aid and gets to being a consistent positive on offense.
To review his rookie year requires looking at one of the most important moments of his season: a game-winning sequence against the Los Angeles Clippers. Williams is as aware of a help defender as the C’s have, and his willingness to rotate around the floor and make instinctual plays cannot be overstated. That makes him an ideal role player that can be on the floor late in games:
Possessions like this have brought the idea of keeping Grant as a small-ball 5 front and center for the Celtics. In 27 postseason minutes where Grant shared the floor with Kemba, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, the Celtics held an 89.1 defensive rating, and a 90.0 rating in the 16 minutes when Walker was replaced by Brad Wanamaker.
Boston’s biggest weakness in the playoffs was their lack of a consistent backup 5-man, particularly against smaller, faster lineups. Enes Kanter and Robert Williams were solid in their roles but were sieves against dribble penetration. In late-game situations where the Celtics wanted to switch 1 through 5, Grant was reliably their best, and only, option for the gig.
A lot has been made of Boston’s “all small” lineup, where Williams would be replaced by Gordon Hayward. That lineup, when Williams sits, had a putrid defensive rating of 120 in 19 minutes, per NBA.com. At the very least, Grant has played himself into being the defensive option Brad Stevens looks to in late-game “offense-for-defense” substitutions.
When the season was postponed in March and resumption was questionable, I wrote a long piece on the player Grant should study to learn from this offseason: Draymond Green. During the Eastern Conference Finals, Green advocated for more Grant minutes to contain Bam Adebayo.
Boston need to go with Grant Williams at the 5. Put JB on Herro. Switch the pick and roll, that will take away the Bam dive.— Draymond Green (@Money23Green) September 18, 2020
Williams, who infamously turned down Harvard to go to Tennessee, has the mental chops to absorb the high-IQ methods Green manipulates the game on both ends. They both have similar frames, aren’t elite athletes and will need to rely on their combination of physical strength and mental preparedness to thrive.
Still, Stevens was hesitant to throw the rookie into those late-game situations. Williams’ minutes fluctuated as a result, particularly in the Miami series.
As a shooter, Grant experienced the wildest of highs and lows during his rookie year. He began his career 0-for-25 from deep before making his first triple on December 9th. In the playoffs, he shot 58.8 percent from deep, tops in the postseason. Both outputs are extremes that don’t indicate the norm for him, which was going about 33.8 percent on the rest of the year.
That’s the conundrum about Williams as a small-ball 5. He provides the switchability on defense, but he’s no quite as impactful on offense as a true stretch-5, and isn’t enough of a high-level shooter to be an upgrade over Theis. He’s got a few improvements to make, as either a shooter or a playmaker, to be his most impactful at the 5.
Where does Grant fit long-term? That will depend on how the Celtics continue his development path and which direction they lead him. Regardless of that direction, there were enough solid, subtle impacts Williams made to earn him consistent bench minutes next year. His role may never grow more than that, but he’s a valued member of this club and does very little harm in the minutes he plays. Solid all around.