Championship contenders will only go as far as their best players take them. However, role players can elevate the stars’ games and ultimately, push their teams to the next level. Great playmakers need to be surrounded with equally great shooters. Great defenses can be built around great defensive players, but it takes everybody moving on a string for it to work.
Last season, it was Daniel Theis seamlessly fitting in with the Celtics’ star-studded starters. He didn’t take away shots from Boston’s Best Five and complemented their suffocating ability to switch everything on defense. He was, in short, the perfect role player.
Heading into the off season, Danny Ainge’s mission is simple: find more pieces to complement the franchise cornerstones. A roster crunch and salary cap complicate his task, but there may be in-house answers already at his disposal.
Over the last two summers, Ainge has gambled on two players whose stock plummeted in the draft, Robert Williams and Romeo Langford, and another disadvantaged by a perceived lack in athleticism and size, Grant Williams. By the end of the year, all three showed flashes in the bubble that they can contribute to a contender and next season will give them a chance at substantial playing time and consistency. If they can make The Leap, Banner #18 could be rising, too.
Robert Williams => Clint Capella
So much mystery clouds Timelord’s ceiling. For now, there are so many things he’s already good at. He’s a quick twitch shot blocker on defense that can erase mistakes--including his own--with his pogo stick athleticism. Offensively, he doesn’t stretch the floor with a three-point shot, but he does stretch it vertically with his hops. With an insane catch radius, he’s a dangerous rim runner with Kemba Walker and specifically Marcus Smart running point in pick-and-rolls.
However, while those types of plays can get Timelord on a highlight reel, his growth coming into next season needs to be in the subtleties of the game. The center spot is seemingly Boston’s least important position and simultaneously, the area that’s most criticized. To Theis’ credit, it’s because he blended in so well with the starters. Theis excels in the game’s least marketable skills: positional defense, cutting off driving lanes on pick-and-rolls, help defense, etc.
For Williams, it’s those nuances that he has to master. A strong contest is better than a do-or-die block attempt. A semi-reliable jumper will go a longer way than getting another inch or two on his vert. The coaching staff has consistently talked up his ability as a passer since Summer League; if they run offense through Williams at the shoulder, that also makes him even more dangerous. He’ll get minutes next year as an energy boost off the bench and that may be enough as a specialist.
Romeo Langford => Avery Bradley
Initially, my haunting worry was that Romeo Langford would go the way of James Young (insert Bill Simmons’ fist pump). Young was the #17 pick in 2014 and some considered him a steal that deep in the draft, not unlike Langford at #14. The same buzz phrases over-promised on both prospects: “gifted scorer,” “strong athlete,” “high upside,” etc. The same things were said about MarShon Brooks and Gerald Green too, but Langford could be different.
In his short time in Boston, Langford has had a laundry list of injuries. When he’s been healthy though, Langford has contributed more as a lockdown defender than as the vaunted offense force that made him Mr. Basketball in Indiana in 2018. To play for Brad Stevens is to defend and the rookie committed to that mantra.
What’s striking about Langford’s D is his patience. He’s not the frenetic, pestering type like a Patrick Beverly or Marcus Smart. He’s not a wall like Semi Ojeleye either. He’s more a ballroom dancer leading his opponent into a fatal move. He’s sturdy at 6’4 and 215 pounds and can shadow wings off the dribble or without the ball.
By comparison, Langford could be the next Avery Bradley. Both were drafted in the teens of the draft. Both missed Summer League after surgeries following their freshmen years. Both spent extended time in Maine in their rookie seasons as they came back from injury.
Bradley’s development, however, was fast-tracked. After a rift between Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen broke up the Big Three in 2012, Bradley supplanted Allen as a starter in his sophomore season. AB’s calling card was his relentless defense and his offense needed to only be competent next to his Hall of Fame teammates.
Knock on wood, that doesn’t happen to this Celtics team next year. But with that said, the road block still exists. There’s little chance that Langford could crack the starting five next year and get extended on-the-job minutes. However, a reasonable expectation for Langford is further consistency with his defense and some pop in offense. He shouldn’t be limited like Ojeleye was as a 3&D player. Langford was heralded as a dynamic scorer out of high school and he’ll find himself playing next to a bunch of players that should open up the floor for him.
Over 60% of Langford’s shot attempts last season were in the paint. He has a natural ability to penetrate and use his size to get to the rim and it’s that aggressiveness that should be harnessed moving forward. In that respect, he’s a lot like Jaylen Brown and we know how long it took JB to start to put everything together. Langford might actually be ahead of Brown in his age-20 season in terms of mechanics and fundamentals. If he gets anywhere close to Brown in Year 2, the entire team should start strapping on ping pong paddles to their hands.
Grant Williams => Draymond Green
Grant is a little more difficult to project. Glue guys don’t have have a statistical profile that can just plug-and-play into any lineup. Instead, it’s an unquantifiable skill set that makes perfect fits next to other players that will put up the numbers.
During Boston’s wilt in Game 2, the Warriors’ Draymond Green tweeted, “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.” Adebayo was in the process of torching the Theis and Kanter for 15 points in the third quarter on 7-for-8 shooting. When Grant was inserted at the start of the 4th, he was the catalyst of Boston’s “switch everything” defense that stemmed Miami’s tide and gave Boston a chance to win. It’s a small sample size, but it does serve as a precursor to what could be in store for Williams next season.
In a sense, Green’s quick rise was lucky happenstance for the Warriors. After David Lee went down with a hamstring injury, Green thrived in his place and eventually became the everyday starter. That was the modest birth of modern small ball with Draymond at the 4 and closing lineups with him playing center. What made Green so unique was his ability to switch on to guards on defense and act as a hub on offense; he didn’t have to score so much, but simply act as a screener and passer above the break and defend, well, everybody.
Since then, that Golden State gimmick has lost a little bit of its charm. The best centers these days can play a more traditional game in the game and stretch the floor and dribble penetrate off the drive. The Celtics failed to deal with that in Adebayo and would have probably struggled with Anthony Davis in The Finals. At only 6’6, it’s hard to project Grant Williams as an everyday 30+ minute contributor in the front court, but he can be an effective counterpunch.
In one-on-one battles in the post, he gets crunched. He had the worst points per possession defense on the Celtics at 1.26 ranking in the 9th percentile. However, Grant is already an exceptional positional defender and can hold his own one-on-one against point guards. Here’s The General sealing the Game 7 win against the defending champs with a block on Fred VanVleet’s potential game-tying 3.
Williams infamously missed his first twenty-five three-point attempts to start the season, he’d then make 20-of-50 through February, and then 10-of-17 in the playoffs.
Ultimately, these numbers don’t matter. They’re only presented here to illustrate Williams’ willingness to do everything even if he’s not particularly great at anything. Defend the post and the three point line? Sure. Shoot threes? OK.
What could serve Williams in his second season is an attitude adjustment. In his freshman year in the NBA, he was a wide-eyed rookie soaking up everything he could from his vets (including staying at Kemba’s house during quarantine) and a class clown in the locker room. At Tennessee, he had a rugged reputation as a competitor that led to two consecutive SEC Player of the Year awards. He wasn’t as undersized in college, so could use his size and strength more effectively to battle around the rim. Even if that doesn’t exactly translate in the pros, returning to the mindset could (see Green, Draymond).
These are obviously lofty expectations for a trio of twenty-somethings still wet behind their ears, but one major caveat for both Williamses and Langford is that next season, contributing as complementary role players should be enough. Expectations should be tempered accordingly. They’ll be given peripheral responsibilities with most of the heavy lifting saddled on the team’s stars. But if they can make bigger leaps in their development and come close to those player comps, well, Boston will be rewarded for their commitment to this youth movement and a longer contention window.