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Robert Williams’ breakthrough is here

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The third-year center is living up to his potential, and staking his claim as Boston’s most impactful center.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Through much of his two-plus seasons in the NBA thus far, Robert Williams III has been more of a hypothetical contributor than an actual one. His raw potential has been undeniable, with a staggering vertical leap and gargantuan wingspan leading to one of the more impressive highlight reels of any young player in the league. But while the highlights have always impressed, injuries and inconsistent performances have held Williams back from regularly providing positive value on the court.

Well, that’s begun to change. In the closing weeks of February, as the Celtics approached the All-Star break, the 23-year-old center started to see a more prominent role in the Boston rotation. In 12 games from February 16th onward, Williams played fewer than 16 minutes just twice, compared to 12 instances in the preceding 19 games he was active before that.

The result? Only the best basketball of his young career. In that 12-game stretch and counting, Williams has stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 9 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 2.5 blocks per game in just 19 minutes per night on average. As the Celtics pulled off a four-game win streak heading into the break, he even found his way onto the court in high-leverage crunch time minutes that had been traditionally reserved for more senior members of the rotation.

The breakthrough run was meaningful for the young center in a number of ways, but most notable among them is that it appears to have cemented him in Brad Stevens’ rotation for good. Now, as the second half of the season kicks off in earnest, there’s a real possibility that Williams might be Boston’s most impactful big for the rest of the year. Let’s take a look at how he’s improved and the unique dimension he brings to this roster.

The offensive side of the court is where Williams has made his biggest impact. Simply put, he’s one of the best vertical threats the Celtics have ever had at the center position. His vertical leap and colossal wingspan make him an exceptionally easy target for lobs, and the vast majority of the time, those lobs end in some of the most violent dunks a Celtic has thrown down in some time.

The dunks get all the attention, but Williams isn’t just using brute force to score anymore. He’s become an exceptionally crafty finisher around the rim, with really impressive touch both ground-bound and while soaring through the air for lobs.

Williams has pulled ahead of Boston’s other bigs on the offensive glass, as well. Tristan Thompson’s reputation has been built on his offensive rebounding prowess, and deservedly so. He’s been one of the league’s most productive offensive rebounders for nearly a decade now. And while his debut season in Celtics’ green has been a bit of a disappointment, that’s an aspect of his game that hasn’t faltered. On the year, he’s actually grabbed OREBs at the second-best rate of his entire career (15.1%).

It’s noteworthy, then, that there’s a strong case to be made that he’s not the most impactful offensive rebounder on this roster. Though admittedly on a slightly smaller sample, Williams grabbed offensive boards at a slightly better rate (15.7%) than Thompson, and the Celtics have been wildly more productive when Williams is the one grabbing them. As of the All-Star break, when Thompson secures an offensive rebound on a possession, Boston has an offensive rating of just 95.8. With Williams, that number jumps all the way to 139.3.

The reasons behind this are twofold. The first, and most simple, is that he’s a superior scorer in put back situations. He’s shot 59% from the field in these possessions (compared to a ghastly 37% from Thompson), and it’s because his athleticism is a weapon on the glass that Thompson doesn’t possess. His superior verticality and length allow him to finish more effectively off his own boards, allowing him to finish above the rim as opposed to Thompson’s signature hook shots.

The second factor is Williams’ passing. He’s shown some glimpses of quality decision-making in the past, but those glimpses are starting to turn into consistently good reads. Whether it leads to a direct assist or not, it’s almost always more beneficial for the offense to be able to reset and start fresh if the put back isn’t there. In those circumstances, Thompson tends to get mired down looking for that hook shot, while Williams has better situational awareness, and the vision to make the right read.

Prior to this season, Williams had provided offensive production in his limited minutes, but lagged behind on the defensive side of the court. Though his highlight reel blocks deservedly drew a lot of attention, the finer aspects of NBA defense often eluded him; slow or missed rotations, biting on pump fakes, things of that nature. This wasn’t unexpected. Defense is the steepest learning curve for NBA rookies — especially bigs, given the increased importance of their responsibilities.

Some of those issues are still present. We’re talking about a player with barely more than 1,000 NBA minutes to his name. He still leaves his feet on some pump fakes he should have seen through, or botches his positioning in half court situations. These things will improve with time and reps.

But this season, Williams has shown his most substantial growth yet. He’s moving more quickly and decisively than we’ve seen from him to this point. He’s not leaving his feet unnecessarily as often anymore, and he’s playing a little more patiently rather than selling out for blocks. The blocks still come, of course — he’s averaging 4.4 per 100 possessions, a ludicrous rate — but his process is visibly more refined now.

Saying Williams is a “good” defender is probably still a bit of a stretch at this point, if only because “good NBA defense” is a very high bar to clear. But as he’s started to make plays he would have missed the past two seasons, it feels like he’s grown into “neutral,” at worst. For example, Rookie Robert almost certainly jumps at Landry Shamet behind the three-point arc on this play, but the current iteration correctly sniffs out the drive and erases it (Shamet should have shot the open three, probably, but that’s besides the point).

Williams is also starting to survive more effectively off switches and on the perimeter. He’s just such a freakish athlete that he enjoys a little more margin for error than your average big. Now he’s starting to wield it more effectively. In particular, his ability to close out on shooters has become a legitimate weapon at times. Good luck attempting a jumper with his 7’6” wingspan in your face.

There are, of course, other reasons why Williams has been slow to emerge in the Celtics’ rotation beyond simply his performance on the court. His health issues have been a consistent concern, and availability has been a major problem. He has struggled to stay on the court consistently for a variety of reasons, from a nagging hip issue to an arterial problem in his legs to a bout with COVID-19. After Thursday’s loss to the Nets, Williams already sits just two games short of his career-high for games played in a season (32).

In other words, enjoying the benefit of Williams’ performance on the court requires a careful balancing act to keep him able to be out there. Stevens has acknowledged the concern in recent weeks, discussing their intent to manage his minutes as the season goes along to ensure his availability in the most meaningful moments.

“The hip is not bothering him, but we’re just trying to manage it over the course of the long season so that he’s available more often than not, and then able to peak in minutes late ... I think as the season progresses, and this is just another thing that you try to keep in the back of your mind from my seat is like, we need him to be able to play higher minutes as the season gets later.”

It’s too optimistic to expect Williams to become a 30-minutes-per-night sort of player, at least at the current moment. Nor does he need to be. Daniel Theis is playing some outstanding basketball this year, and even Thompson is improving somewhat from his early season doldrums. The Celtics are still operating from a position of depth in the frontcourt right now, and that’s before any discussion of trade possibilities.

But as we’ve seen in recent years, on Stevens’ roster, it isn’t about who starts or who plays the most minutes — it’s about who closes. The Celtics have been a better team with Robert Williams on the court, and as the Celtics enter the second half of their schedule, it’s becoming more and more evident that he should be in the game in the most important moments. If he remains healthy and continues to grow, he will have a strong influence over the remainder of Boston’s season.