Amidst Jayson Tatum's early season struggles, Jaylen Brown's battle to stay healthy, and Marcus Smart's headline-grabbing quotes, Robert Williams has continued to put in work, quietly but emphatically.
From improving his offensive rebounding to showing drastic improvement with his perimeter defense, Williams has quietly been one of the Celtics' most consistent players in this inconsistent season. We all knew the talent was there but bemoaned the injury struggles the young big has dealt with through his early career, yet it's now when the Celtics need a steadying presence most that he's stepping up to the plate.
Against a Cleveland Cavaliers team who boast immense size within their rotation, Williams went to battle fearlessly and with an air of control in how he approached the game. We're not seeing the pogo-stick player who spent half of his floor time in the air anymore. Instead, Williams has embraced the ground warfare of being a paint protector and saves his explosiveness for when it's needed most.
Take this block for example: Williams jumps to close the distance, but there's no athletic explosion that sees him soar through the skies. He just pounces to close the space and blocks the mid-range jumper. Swatting away jump shots is, in itself, impressive, yet the fourth-year big makes it look ordinary, and at two blocks per game, we're sure to see more of it.
Just eighteen months ago, Williams would have bit on the slightest up fake or allowed a player's head movement to get him airborne, but after becoming a starter last season and getting more reps, it would appear the Louisiana native has started to figure it out.
Here's Williams again, less than three minutes later, threatening the block attempt to get Evan Mobley off the three-point line. A little bit of discombobulation is overcome by Williams getting the block around the rim, his third of the night, to keep the Celtics tied up at 79 apiece in the fourth quarter.
"I think Rob's been doing a great job of quarterbacking the defense, calling switches, calling coverages," Josh Richardson said, following Williams 16 point, 13 rebound night against the Toronto Raptors earlier this week.
Williams is averaging 11.2 shot contests per game, and according to Basketball Index, Williams is blocking 46.7% of shots he contests on the interior, which extrapolates out to 4.8 shots per 75 possessions. Teams are reluctant to drive on a unit boasting Williams and Al Horford due to their physical brand of defense and penchant for sending shots back into the stands. Yet, due to the Celtics' current defensive system, both of the team's bigs find themselves operating on the perimeter more than we would expect, but that's for another day.
Against the Cavaliers, Williams also dominated the glass, ending the contest with a game-leading 16 rebounds, 5 of them being on the offensive glass.
The great thing about Williams' growth as an offensive rebounder is that he's capable of turning misses into points within seconds. Take the above clip as an example; Williams is keeping the lane clear to allow Smart to drive but turns on the jets once the guard enters his shooting motion, going almost unchecked in the lane before finishing the putback dunk, his second of the night. The Celtics have longed for a rebounding presence, capable of cleaning the glass on both offense and defense, and the now healthy Williams is answering their call.
Offensively, Williams has a similar impact, averaging 10.8 points, and 1.5 assists per game, while generating 9.8 points per game via screen assists. Granted, a large portion of these points are coming from his work on the offensive glass, but Williams' rim pressure and vertical spacing when rolling to the rim continue to impact how defenses choose to guard the Celtics. From providing a dump-off outlet in the weak-side dunker spot to rolling hard off a screen, the Celtics look far more versatile when Williams is on the floor.
For Williams, it's all about timing, knowing when to cut, and when to stand pat. In the above play, Williams walks to the weak-side dunker spot and waits for Jarrett Allen to help on Smart's drive; as soon as Allen's focus shifts, Williams cuts in front of the hoop for an easy outlet pass and finish. Sure, it's a basic play, but one we wouldn't see the big-man make a year or so ago because it didn't involve exploding to the rim.
Of course, there is a time and place for that type of play, where Williams generates early offense with his unpredictable level of athleticism, such as this fast-break alley-oop jam on in the face of Allen.
These types of plays are worth more than the two points they put on the board. They act as a catalyst for the rest of the team, often firing them up and changing the intensity level. This brings us to Williams's final evolution, which again has been on show in recent weeks: his voice.
Williams has begun to speak up during press conferences, not in a detrimental or derogatory way, but in a manner that offers an honest assessment of the team's current plight and how he feels they should fix it.
"We relaxed all the way. It's been something we've been doing a lot lately, and we need to fix it. It's all I can say," Williams told the media following the Celtics 19-point collapse, "It's just us being fed up with it, and that's the point where we are. We're still learning each other day-to-day, but these slip-ups, this s*** can't happen no more. Obviously, we fight for something bigger than one game. We've gotta put a stop to it."
As one of the Celtics' elder statesmen and one of their most impactful players, seeing Williams embrace his voice within the locker room is a good sign for his evolution as a player and a leader. And with so many fingers being pointed towards one player or another for the Celtics inability to close out games, Williams has continued to warrant the praise coming his way, as he bids to show his improvements are permanent and that there's still a lot more development to come from him.