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Midseason progress report: Robert Williams

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Robert Williams was coming into his own with a defined role in his second season. A hip injury could have derailed his development, but his impending return could still earn him valuable minutes in the playoffs.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Williams started the season entrenched within the Boston big-man rotation, jostling for playing time along with Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter. All three were provided minutes on the floor depending on the match ups Boston faced, allowing the Celtics to utilize each of their big’s best attributes.

Defensively, they could call on Theis if they required a big capable of defending on the perimeter or actively switching on the fly. Should they require a big body down low to absorb the contact coming from the low block, then Kanter would get the nod. But if they needed an athletic rim protector, capable of staying in front of ball-handlers or recovering from tags to chase down a block, then Robert Williams was their man.

Offensively, the scheme was the same. Theis provides floor stretching capabilities along with playmaking skills from the high post or elbow three. Kanter is the man tasked with keeping possessions alive following missed shots. Williams provided vertical spacing, a term first coined by Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Vertical spacing is when an athletic rim runner forces teams to defend higher to slow down the big man, aiming to stop the roll-and-lob, in turn opening up large areas of space around the basket.

Robert Williams was coming into his own with a defined role in his second season. A hip injury could have derailed his development, but his impending return could still earn him valuable minutes in the playoffs.

He averaged 14.2 minutes per game throughout the 19 games he has appeared in this season, notching 3.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per contest. Following a year of inconsistency, Williams was now earning valuable minutes. However, Williams has now missed 38 games and counting, leaving the Celtics thinner at the five position than they would have cared for at the start of the season.

With such a small sample size, we can only look at what he showed when on the floor, so let’s begin with what he was doing well.

When Williams is on the floor, you’re always expecting a block, be it a tip or venomous swat that gets the crowd off their feet. He never disappoints in this area of his game either, ranking among the top 8 percent of the league for blocks per 100 possessions this season according to Cleaning the Glass.

While he is primarily known as a shot-blocking extraordinaire, Williams was showing growth in other areas during his brief time in the rotation to begin the season.

His understanding while on the floor has improved, no longer being caught out of position with regularity, allowing him to provide solid help defense when required or to deter interior drives should a ball handler get brave.

His most significant improvement wasn’t actually on the defensive end though. It came from an area few would have imagined entering the season. That was his passing ability, from both the high or low block all the way out to beyond the break, Williams was developing a steady hand when facilitating for others.

According to Cleaning the Glass, Williams took an enormous jump in facilitation this year, ranking in the 68th percentile league-wide and assisting on 10.8 percent of his teammate’s buckets while on the floor. For clarity, last season Williams finished in the 1st percentile for assists, making him among the leagues most ineffective passers. He’s only played an extra 40 minutes of basketball so far this season, making that jump far more evident.

There were also flashes of a jump shot beginning to develop, especially from a distance around or below the free throw line. If he continues to work on that aspect of his game again once healthy, defenses will have no choice but to play him closer. When that starts to happen, the Celtics can utilize that newfound passing ability to even more significant effect as the lanes begin to open for the slashers on the roster.

Then there was his growing confidence in his hook shot.

Now, let’s take a look at his deficiencies. The primary issue Williams needs to work on is how quickly he reacts to ball fakes; he seems so eager to block shots that he will bite on almost all ball fakes. As offensive players get more accustomed to this hole in his game, they will utilize it against him. A quick up fake to get Williams off the floor, and they can get an extra few steps on him and potentially drop an easy bucket at the rim.

His free throw numbers need some work, too. A player of his skill set will draw fouls as he becomes respected around the rim. Teams will look to force him to the line, making him earn his points. A career 58.6 percent shooter from the line is far less fearsome than a freak athlete with insane bounce barreling down the lane at you. Until he can bring those numbers up, teams will opt to foul when Williams has a head of steam in transition.

With his growing skill set and defensive ability, Williams has been a loss for the Celtics since his injury. He was finally getting a chance to show the world what he could do. Unfortunately, his momentum was cut short. A recent update on Williams road back from injury was released over the last few days, which provides encouragement as the business end of the season approaches.

Robert Williams has the potential to become the Celtics starting center of the future. If he continues to show the level of progress that was displayed earlier this season, then the roll of the dice Boston took when drafting a lottery pick who slipped down the board may be one of their best gambles of recent memory.