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Building a mystery: Robert Williams finding his spots in training camp

An 0-for-7 shooting night in the preseason has the Celtics tweaking the Timelord’s game.

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Robert Williams says he feels no pressure heading into Year 4. After signing a four-year extension with the Celtics this summer worth $54 million, Boston’s usually chill big man is just focused on doing his job and getting better.

Last year after the trade deadline, Williams racked up games of 9-for-9, 7-for-9, and 8-for-12 after the team went 8-2 when he started. After an 0-for-7 performance in the team’s first preseason game, he shook off any concern over his output. “More than me, I was focused on getting my teammates in a good rhythm,” Williams said after Thursday’s practice.

That’s been Williams’ vibe for most of his 132 games in Boston. He’s often talked about his love for passing and sometimes, he appears to just float around the court. When asked about Ime Udoka’s switch everything defense and the onus on him to keep up with quicker guards, Williams laughed it off and said, “obviously, I gotta slide my feet way better.”

Williams’ fly-fishing demeanor fits perfectly with his relaxed Louisiana accent, but after he put together enough of a resume last year to warrant a new contract, he’ll be expected to deliver on that promise soon. It’s no surprise what strengths the coaching staff have identified in his game. He’s a premiere rim runner in the pick-and-roll with freak athleticism. While developments in other parts of his game are welcomed, the Celtics need him to be his best self when he’s on the floor.

“He settled for some mid-range that he didn’t have to. We told him, obviously, we want you to get back to what you do well which is being a hard roller and lob threat and catching those pocket passes,” Udoka said.

Williams isn’t going to dunk everything in the restricted area, but his threat around the rim generates a gravity not unlike Steph Curry above the break. Paired with a strong dribble drive penetrator like Dennis Schroder (above), he’ll get plenty of chances for easy alley oops and gimmes from the dunker spot. Even if he’s not the final target, his gravity shrinks the defense in the paint and creates space around the perimeter.

“He had a couple of opportunities, but he got stuck in the middle ground, so we stressed that to him,” Udoka said after a film session with Williams. “Sprint out with speed, getting out quick, being the threat he is, and then setting screens. He slipped out of a lot of screens. We really want him to set those and cause a mismatch, 2-on-1 on the back side so that he can get out to his rolls.”

Here are two examples from Monday night where instead of setting a hard screen and diving to the hoop with purpose, Williams either didn’t effectively get behind the defense or popped to the free throw line and settled on a low percentage mid-range jumper.

Here’s one of the screens that Williams slips out of instead of setting a hard pick for Brown to shed his defender. Slipping screens has its place if the opposing big is playing too far up and you can get behind him. Check out CelticsBlog’s Adam Spinella over at NBA Math for some good analysis on Tyson Chandler and how he utilized the slip. Against the Magic, Timelord doesn’t make himself a legitimate threat, looking for the ball fifteen feet away from the basket.

In the third quarter, Williams does a good job separating Terrence Ross from Brown. As soon as Brown engages Wendell Carter Jr. and the recovering Ross, it’s Williams’ responsibility to turn that 1-on-2 disadvantage into a 2-on-1 advantage in the paint. Instead, Brown hits Williams on the pop for a no man’s land jumper. Both Brown and Williams should have hit Marcus Smart wide open for the three, too.

Williams remains a work in progress. Al Horford back in Boston in a mentor role should accelerate his growth. They have contrasting styles, but it’s all about finding their spots on the floor where they’re the biggest threat.

“It’s been great these last couple of weeks as far as Al (Horford) giving me a lot of teaching points,” Williams said of working with Horford. “A lot of stuff to look for, as far as communicating with me where he wants it. It’s been good.”

That’s an important lesson for Williams to learn, too. Does he want the ball a foot above the rim or four feet above the rim where only he can catch it?

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