Robert Williams: half-man, half-spaceship. Over the last few months, we’ve often seen the springy center impact games with his athleticism, sometimes as a lob threat, others as a rim-deterrent. Yet, somewhere in the shadows, Williams has been honing his craft, making incremental improvements as a screener.
Sometimes, the little improvements in their game slip by. You might think, “oh, he’s improving here,” but the thought is often fleeting — until enough small building blocks have been placed together to create a noticeable jump.
That’s what’s been happening with Williams’ screening ability.
To start the year, the recently-extended center was a viable screening option, active and willing, but it often felt like he was a step late to his spot, or his angles weren’t conducive to generating contact. But, slowly, Williams has improved his timing and started sinking into his screens more, allowing for contact to naturally occur, which has been creating precious space for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
“We knew that the person guarding Rob was probably going to be back, so we knew that if he set a good screen, we would probably be naked on the shot. Rob and Enes set some really good screens, and the majority of my looks came from those guys,” Jaylen Brown said after dropping 34 points against the Cavaliers.
Williams sets a nonchalant screen-ish on Lauri Markkanen to allow Brown time to receive that pass from Marcus Smart, then quickly flips the angle of the screen to open up the floor for Brown. The result is a wide-open, uncontested three for the All-Star wing, courtesy of Williams’ timing and strength.
It’s also a nice touch that this was Boston’s first offensive possession of the game, which illustrates how the team was looking to play through their center's screening actions on the perimeter.
Here’s another example. Williams offers Tatum an outlet out of a double team before he feeds Brown on the wing. Straight after giving up the rock, Williams gets straight into a screening action, which again gives Brown oceans of space to get his shot off.
The story was the same all night: screen, space, shoot. It might not always have been Brown to benefit from the pick, but it was usually Williams executing them.
Of course, Williams’ ability to generate space on screens was accentuated against the Cavaliers, who were running Tacko Fall in drop coverage, which left the mid-range area open. Should the team come up against bigs who are mobile, and can switch onto the perimeter, those screening actions, while still valuable, will be less impactful on a possession-by-possession basis.
And that’s where the Lousiana native’s most underrated skill comes into play - his passing ability. Against Cleveland, Williams notched 7 assists, which was a game-high. Hand-offs, bullet passes, dump-offs, the 24-year-old mixed his passes depending on what the defense was giving him.
We’re not always going to see someone thread the needle, and while those flashy plays are great for highlights, it’s the simpler passes that win teams games. And that’s what Williams is learning. We’re no stranger to seeing the big man fire some awesome dimes from above the break, or Williams initiating second-side actions with rapid kick-outs.
Still, the plays that show improving basketball IQ, are the ones to watch out for.
The impressive thing about the above play is that Williams doesn’t instantly reset the offense to the three-point line. Instead, he takes a moment to scan the floor for weakside cutters. Romeo Langford, who has been one of the Celtics' more consistent off-ball threats this year (in terms of his movement) makes the read and 45 cuts (a diagonal cut towards the hoop) giving Boston’s bouncy center a passing outlet in a much more dangerous position.
“I think he’s better than I knew coming in, and I saw that early in training camp. It’s an area that I think is underestimated for him. It depends on what we play out of, more so than if he’s grown in that area, I think I was surprised more than the other people here, when I got here, at how well he passes the ball,” Udoka explained when asked about Williams seven-assist performance.
For all of the dunks, blocks, rebounds, and putbacks, seeing Williams dominate in more subtle ways throughout a game is an encouraging sign. It’s clear that the fourth-year big has all the talent necessary to become one of the better rim-runners in the NBA, but to improve at things within the margins is what will help elevate him, and his team, to new heights in the future.
Of course, adding a mid-range jumper, and improving his accuracy from the free-throw line (shooting 61.4% on the season) are both vital aspects to Williams diversifying his game, but those are off-season improvements, whereas screening and passing are incremental throughout the year.
For context’s purpose, Williams’ performance came against the Cavaliers' third-string center, who was limited in how he could defend the Celtics perimeter-based offense, but you can only beat what’s in front of you. And it’s not like we haven’t seen flashes of dominance from the Celtics big man before.
However, “Lob” Williams performance last night felt like a giant step in the right direction, a step towards having a complete center in the starting five. We’re not there yet, but those building blocks are beginning to pile up.