For all the thunderous dunks and sky-scratching blocks, Robert Williams III has spent most of his short NBA tenure as a novelty act, the type a contender like Boston couldn’t risk trotting out for anything above the relatively low stakes of your run-of-the-mill regular season outing.
Thus explains Williams 22 total minutes in the Celtics’ first round sweep of the 76ers. Only 22-years-old, he’s still learning the minutiae of the game with little postseason run. Boston needed something a bit more stable going up against Joel Embiid.
In Game 1 of their first-round matchup against Toronto, Brad Stevens flipped the script. Williams was the first big off the bench and saw nearly 19 minutes of action. It was a card Stevens has previously played during the regular season. Rarely, however, in the playoffs with such high returns.
“For Rob, we sat him most of the Philly series,” Stevens said after Game 1. “But know that if we play in this one, he’s probably going to get a chance to play.”
Williams used the most playing time he’s seen in over two weeks to compile 10 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting with five rebounds and two blocks. He was plus-4 and helped the Celtics to a wire-to-wire 112-94 win.
A shot radius limited to the restricted area caps the layers of offense Williams brings to the court. In a small sample size of just 33 possessions during the regular season, he still managed to rank just above the 80th percentile as a roller who helped generate 43 points on those plays.
His long arms and springy bounce create quite the catch radius. The combination of Williams’ efforts diving to the basket along with the presence of a Kemba Walker pull-up that forces Serge Ibaka onto the perimeter created an easy basket soon after his entry.
The same traits that make Williams a breathtaking above-the-rim finisher have also earned him a reputation as a budding shot blocker. He’s averaged 1.2 for his career despite playing just 11.0 minutes a night, which translates to an absurd 4.0 per-36 minutes.
In the play below, Williams locks in on Pascal Siakam as soon as the All-Star crosses the 3-point line. That tunnel vision has at times burned Williams, sacrificing the structure of Boston’s defense in pursuit of a block, in this case leaving Marc Gasol wide open at the top of the key.
This time, with only Kemba in his way, Siakam isn’t thinking pass. He goes off his right foot on the right side of the court, a method many use to throw off the timing of defenders and lurking rim protections.
However, Williams’ instincts are simply too good, and he’s able to swat Siakam’s attempt off the backboard.
Despite a clear opening behind Daniel Theis among Celtic big men, there’s a reason Williams hasn’t been able to leapfrog Enes Kanter for the backup spot.
Injuries limited him to just 29 games this season after appearing in 32 as a rookie. The raw abilities still being molded have left him susceptible to foul trouble in the form of 4.7 career fouls per-36 minutes.
The infatuation with Williams from both inside the organization and around the fanbase regardless of his flaws lies in what only he can bring to the Celtics’ frontcourt.
“He adds more athleticism and more height to our team and allows us to do a lot more on that defensive end where we can get up into guys, pressure guys,” said Marcus Smart.
“On the offensive end, a guy you can throw the ball to, come up with some costly rebounds for us, put-backs and things like that, and just really opens the floor for us guards.”
Theis offers more of a short-roll option offensively, someone who can occasionally knock down a jumper but prefers to use his spot in the middle of the court to make plays for his teammates. Defensively, he does most of his work on the ground, attempting to alter a shot before it’s taken.
Kanter is an incredible rebounder at both ends with an ambidextrous touch around the basket. His defensive woes have been well documented and vertical spacing is not something he provides.
At 6’8’’ with a 7’6’’ wingspan and a 40-inch vertical, Williams has the tools for the phenomenal. Like when he executed a mid-air maneuver around OG Anunoby for a two-hand slam.
Not many players possess the tools necessary to close enough space to block an elbow jumper after backpedaling towards the rim. Williams can and did against Norman Powell towards the end of the first quarter.
“For us as a team, having the game slow down for him is huge for us,” Smart said of Williams in the early days of the bubble. “He changes our defense. He allows us to take it to another level.”
Against a Raptors team built on the strength of a multi-faceted two-way attack, Boston can’t have too many alternatives to match the defending champs. Williams provided one and the Celtics hold a 1-0 series lead in part because of it.
“Hopefully, he maintains good health,” Stevens said about Williams before the restart. “When he’s had his opportunity, he’s had some moments.”