There’s a backhanded compliment in calling someone solid. It’s a half-step below good and perhaps on the same tier as average. With Grant Williams, it seems to sting a little bit more than usual. Here’s a strong-bodied whiz kid who Al Horford endearingly calls “a sponge” with so many raw tools and a sweet stroke. The expectations are higher for Williams, for better or worse.
But two years into his NBA career, there is little doubt he has enough to last in the league. His minutes can be categorized as solid; some highs based on his shooting and some lows mixed in.
Last season, the second-year pro made very few steps in a positive direction. The offseason was short and disjointed by COVID, so expecting a leap might have been unfair. His shooting stabilized after a rough rookie year, though Grant couldn’t find his footing in the rotation. The Celtics were clearly better when Williams was not on the floor. Per Basketball Reference, Boston was 7-3 when Williams played 10 or fewer minutes, 6-3 when he did not play and 23-30 when he played a larger role. The team was at its peak with Williams on the outside looking in.
How does Grant change that and carve out a larger role heading into a pivotal third NBA season? Find one consistent skill to hang his hat on.
The specific work to find that skill and figuring out what it should be are the tough parts. Two years into his career, we can be pretty confident in what those skills won’t be. He isn’t ripping past anyone off the dribble, especially if he’s playing the 4. He isn’t a scorer at the rim, a creator for others or a pull-up shooter as a result.
To me, Williams needs to position himself as the reliable frontcourt shooter on a team suddenly devoid of reliable stretch options off the bench. Al Horford has shot 37.6% from 3 over the last four seasons, but as he enters his age 35 season, his minutes might be slimmer than his last go-round in Boston. Robert Williams is yet to make a 3-pointer. Enes Kanter is an interior beast who barely looks at the rim outside of twelve feet.
The functionality of that shooting is important to consider. The NBA has moved towards interchangeable 3’s and 4’s, leaving athletically similar players to fill both spots. Grant’s pick-and-pop ability when playing the 4 often gets negated by the ease of switching for his man. No longer would a switch create a mismatch — especially considering Boston’s primary creators, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are often guarded by guys the same size as Williams.
As a result, Williams is much more a stationary threat who stands in the corner. 109 of Williams’ 126 jump shots in the half-court were of the catch-and-shoot variety. 91 were standing on the perimeter, while only 14 came off the pick-and-pop. The corners are where Grant thrives: he shot 44.6% on corner treys last season, and that accounted for nearly half of his attempts.
There’s a juxtaposition there that’s lively in today’s game. Elite corner 3-point shooters are necessary and bring out the best in an offense. That said, the easiest place to hide a non-shooter and weapon is in the corners. What Williams does well spotting up there is a positive, but it’s in such a dispensable role that he often gets overlooked.
Adding shooting in other spots then becomes crucial. Perhaps going better than 3-14 on pick-and-pops will give Ime Udoka faith to use him more in that role. He needs to make more than 31.5% (23-73) of his threes outside the corner.
This preseason has shown positive strides in that area. Williams played very well against the Toronto Raptors on Friday night, going 2-for-4 from deep, including this nice pick-and-pop look:
Nice double screen in transition. Grant Williams pops out and comfortably knocks down the three. pic.twitter.com/UP6p58h3Cp— Brett Usher (@hooperbole) October 9, 2021
Speaking of the corners, Grant has already made a concerted effort to add effective cutting along the baseline to his repertoire. Williams had a nice dunk when cutting along the baseline against the Raptors, and attributes his improvements to studying his teammate Horford:
“When you’re around a guy like Al, he just does a lot of things you see on film that people wouldn’t normally do,” Williams said. “So just watching him & his approach every single day & how he moves in practice.”
Brad Stevens’ first year as President of Basketball Operations has already seen the reshuffling of the deck in the frontcourt. There are lots of pieces that need to sort themselves, but the moral of the story is that things are crowded. Finding ways to steal minutes for Williams as a small-ball 5 are disappearing. Horford can do the shooting in late-game situations. Timelord has been a dominant defender. At least on these Celtics, Grant has to embrace and find ways to thrive as a 4.
The 3-and-D moniker is tired, overused and oversimplified. It might be pretty accurate for Grant’s next step, though. Come in and guard the best forward he can find. Hit shots in the corner and prove consistent above the corners. Do both well and his role will grow. Sometimes the game really is as simple as that.