Somehow, the Boston Celtics made it through this year with six rookies seeing time.
The foundation is in place for a longstanding core in Beantown. If lessons from past NBA homegrown stars (i.e. Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors) teaches us anything, it’s that paying a balanced, talented core max money puts an onus on cheap, young role players to excel in their lane. Money can’t buy everything, so if it buys stars, the depth has to be manufactured somewhere.
That’s where player development comes in. The Celtics have so many young players to develop and are hoping that at least a few will stick. Heading into the offseason during one of the most tumultuous endings to a year, these players’ development cannot be lost in the shuffle. They’re professionals now; it’s their job to get better and the team’s job to help them.
Seeking improvement requires an honest look in the mirror, recognition of one’s own strengths and a plan to improve their weaknesses. For that reason, we’ll stay away from sharpening the already-existent strengths of these young players and focus more on rounding out their game to the point where they can be a consistent and trustworthy contributor.
For Grant Williams, that’s the name of the game.
Last week, I dove into a bold concept for Brad Stevens and the Celtics to consider for postseason play: Grant Williams as the team’s small-ball 5. Much has been made of Boston’s lack of premier options at the center position (no disrespect to Daniel Theis, who is a fantastic role player). Look at the landscape of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and almost all feature fairly immobile bigs: Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, and Joel Embiid, to name a few. If the lineups of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and one of Marcus Smart or Gordon Hayward are to play a four-out system, why not fully embrace the speed and find ways to target those immobile 5’s?
The goal for Williams, especially as a rookie who hasn’t lived up to expectations on offense, seems lofty. Few teams rely on rookies for crunch-time lineups in the postseason, and this strategy would be meant for those clear situations. Even if this summer is too soon to explore such a lineup, I’m super intrigued with Grant being a 6’7” switchable 5.
So how can Williams improve and prepare for such lofty expectations? He can lean into the best mentor or on-court example of small-ball center from a below average scorer we have ever seen. Love him or hate him, there’s a lot to learn from Golden State Warriors three-time champion Draymond Green.
We often think of Green now as the staple of small-ball 5 in crunch time lineups. But he’s been used far more frequently at the 4, a position Williams is already more comfortable with and seems to be where the lion’s share of his minutes currently come from. Even if you disagree with the notion that Grant could be a small-ball 5, the Draymond study can still maximize his game as a non-shooting, high-IQ, strong-framed forward.
We’re all guilty of looking for “the next” version of whichever superstar is currently en vogue. Because he possesses such a diverse set of skills, it’s hard to envision a clear comparison for Draymond Green unless those same qualities are already polished and possessed. What are those clear traits? 1) Strength and switchability on defense to guard 1 thru 4 or even 5, 2) handling and a passing acumen in the half-court and open floor, and 3) insanely high-IQ and a willingness to make plays for their teammates.
If a prospect entered the league with consistent flashes of all those skills, he likely would be a transcendent player and wouldn’t have many areas for improvement. But in looking for someone to fulfill a similar versatile frontcourt piece (without 3-point scoring in their repertoire), those are the areas to examine.
The on-court skills will take the lion’s share of our time, but we have to find a way to tangibly appreciate the high-IQ that Williams already possesses. In basketball and in life, he’s a curious, quick learner. He now-famously turned down Princeton, Harvard, and Yale to head to the University of Tennessee. He was 6’4” and 280 pounds coming out of high school, so he was not seen as a highly-touted recruit.
After all the growth at Tennessee, Williams’ on-court skills caught up to his brain. The result: early praise from Celtics coach Brad Stevens on how he quickly acclimated to the game way back in October:
“As far as coming in and doing things and picking things up quick, from a strategy standpoint and also from an intuitive standpoint, he’s pretty impressive.”
Pretty high praise from Coach.
Throughout the season, many anecdotes came forward about just how inquisitive and well-prepared the rookie has been. When Enes Kanter got hurt in their season debut, the Celtics scrambled to teach Grant the playbook so he could be their emergency 5. Grant already knew them. His teammates quickly heaped praise on Williams, and as we’ve gotten to know the intellectual side of the rookie, we’ve learned much about how he thoroughly believes in a balanced offensive attack where everyone gets touches and the ball determines who shoots.
Williams isn’t just smart, he’s a sponge. It’s not a coincidence he’s been living with veteran point guard Kemba Walker throughout the COVID-19 period down in Charlotte. Part of his acquisition of on-court wisdom isn’t his natural ability, but his thirst. It’s no coincidence he’s barricaded himself inside a house with the team’s leader. Those are guys you want to invest in, guys who will more rapidly improve than others, and the teammates who don’t need the spotlight to make winning plays.
Offense: Traffic Patterns, Playmaking and Time
The notion exists that a small-ball 5 should provide one of the two qualities to a team’s offense: increased speed or 3-point shooting. Williams, a slight speed upgrade to the likes of Theis or Robert Williams, isn’t blazing quick by any means. He’s not the type of guy to blow past 5’s in one-on-one settings. His 24.7 percent shooting from deep raises severe flags about his long-term spacing potential.
However, what Grant would provide in a way other 5’s on the roster cannot, is the ability to facilitate, passing from the Al Horford spot atop the key. The Celtics’ offense is at its best when the big man in that spot can thread needles and initiate action. That’ll allow Celtics guards to swirl around, screen for each other, and leverage their individual mismatches.
This is also a skill highly coveted in transition.
Think about a three-lane highway with four sedans and a semi-truck. Whenever there’s traffic upcoming, all four sedans have to navigate around not just the stalled cars ahead but the location of that semi. If he’s in the middle lane, their decisions hasten for whether to go right or left of the truck. Sitting behind him isn’t a great option in rush hour, as he’s slower to move.
The same concept applies to transition offense. Almost every team in America teaches their player to run lanes and fill spots they will occupy within their half-court offense. Big men, routinely, run up the middle of the floor and either stop atop the key or plod their way to the rim. Either way, non-shooting bigs see their man go back to the paint and stay there to challenge any drivers that come.
Put a ball handler in there and it’s essentially a big that can zig-zag in and out of lanes, akin to replacing the 18-wheeler with a Ford F-450. Sure, it’s not as big, but you can go in the left lane with it.
Since his days at Tennessee, I’ve seen flashes of Grant Williams’ ability to rebound and run, starting the break and letting the Celtics’ scorers sprint ahead for easier layups. They aren’t concerned about avoiding a semi, just getting to their destination as quickly as they can:
Of all three plays in the clips above, the pitch back to the trailing Jordan Bone (now a member of the Detroit Pistons) is the most impressive. Good passers see what’s in front of them and analyze it to make the right pass. Great passers can see it and have an immediate understanding about what’s open behind them, too. In a small lineup with multiple elite scoring threats and surrounded by 3-point range, that’s a fantastic asset for Grant to show.
The flashes are not as frequent as Draymond, and Grant has to improve his ball handling chops overall (he’s a little high with his dribble and only has simple moves). Speed is never the prerequisite here, it’s vision. That’s something Draymond is elite with, and by studying how he can attack the glass, take a few dribbles and hit someone in stride, you can gain quite a bit.
Draymond’s ability to push pace has helped the small-ball revolution take place across the league, but he’s elite in the half court, too. The Celtics could dream of using Williams in the short roll akin to how the Warriors have deployed Dray. The threat of Stephen Curry as a shooter means that whenever Green sets a screen for him, two defenders are more worried about Curry and gravitate away from Draymond. Can’t the same be said of Tatum and Walker who are turning into elite 3-point shooters?
From a passing standpoint, we forget that Williams was a great passer at Tennessee. He averaged 2.9 assists per game in the half court. He’s pretty proficient in reading the defense, making the timely pass and can do that on the move, too. My favorite skill of his here is that he rarely wastes a dribble. He’ll catch it and immediately scan before he puts it down on the floor and removes himself as a threat from attacking the hoop.
Sometimes those fundamentals matter, and sometimes they’re indicative of a mindset that’s needed to be a strong playmaker:
What makes this area so much more important for Williams is that he’s proven in college to be an effective shooter from the top of the key. Under Rick Barnes, Tennessee’s offense featured butt screens, where Williams would stand at the 3-point line, let guards run off his hefty behind, and get throwback catch-and-shoot triples as a result:
Williams struggled to adjust to NBA range, no doubt. But there’s a theory I have as to why. His stroke is slower and in college, Williams was guarded by mostly 4’s and 5’s who were slower and stiffer. They’d help on these butt screens and stand farther back, less likely to arrive for a closeout that would alter Grant’s shot. He needs more space to feel comfortable and a spot on the floor he’s used to. And while his percentages are low, they’re a bit skewed by him starting 0-for-25 to begin his career. After the calendar turned to December, he shot 21-of-64 (32.8 percent).
If you watch Draymond’s 3-point attempts, the majority come from this middle-third of the floor. Hopefully the ceiling for Grant’s 3-point production is higher and more consistent than Green’s. If he’s going to try to emulate that playing style, he at least knows where many of his treys will come from.
Defense: Safety Nets, Scram Switches, and Daring the Post-Up
What has made the Warriors’ defense so great is, frankly, their ability to protect Stephen Curry and neutralize mismatches. They’ve embraced switching, and any team that switches with a guard as slender as Steph will encounter size and strength mismatches. What does every offensive player do when he thinks there’s a mouse in the house? He walks down to the block, plants his feet, and begs for the ball.
If the current analytics movement and dispersion of shots has taught us anything, it’s that post-ups should be invited by the defense in comparison to 3-pointers. If the Celtics’ opponent wants to try and beat them by taking thirty back-to-the-basket hook shots in a row, bless ‘em. But if it’s Kemba who is defending the post-ups each of those thirty times, there’s likely an issue.
That’s where the scram switch comes into play. Off-ball defenders who notice the post-up is about to occur can rescue Kemba from having to bang one-on-one, or arrive early enough to prevent a double-team and leave a man uncovered.
To illustrate the concept further, current Army assistant coach Zak Boisvert’s video on Draymond’s ability here is top-notch:
Draymond is the safety net for Curry, and sometimes Klay Thompson, to fall back on. He always has their backs.
In the playoffs, the ability to execute a scram switch is huge. You need multiple guys who can defend the post, and someone who can jump from the weak side and recognize early enough to neutralize the threat is required.
Guess which coach has tried to do this before with his team in the Eastern Conference playoffs:
Williams’ highest level of utility comes from his defense. He’s versatile and moves his feet on-ball. He’s strong guarding the post one-on-one, too.
There are so many areas in which Draymond Green is elite defensively. He’s a coach’s dream. Instead of overwhelming someone trying to study him with the whole enchilada right away, it’s better to serve up in the form of bite-sized empanadas.
Start with how he protects his teammates with off-ball awareness and can be used as a crutch to allow the Celtics to switch in small-ball lineups. If they can bait teams into playing mismatch basketball while neutralizing the mismatch before the ball is caught, that’s a huge time-waster and a positive for the C’s.
Grant has a long way to go to reach Draymond Green levels of overall impact, but the flashes of skills he’s shown and his sturdy, rugged frame make him the ideal prospect to try and shape into his clone. Just like Dray, Williams is underestimated, impacts the game in ways many don’t easily see and is, despite all his flaws, a winner.