Al Horford became a fan favorite Boston Celtic for his master of none skillset, where any given night, he could lead the team to a win in any and all statistical categories. What was most impressive about Horford during his time in Boston was his court vision, basketball IQ and passing acumen.
From 2016-2019, Horford was a savant at reading defenses and finding the open man. He fit the offense and personnel of the roster perfectly, allowing Boston to run smaller lineups with him as the defensive anchor at the five. So, when Horford would get the ball at the top of the key, there was limitless potential of what Brad Stevens could scheme up.
Running Horford as the primary playmaker with four offensive threats (Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum) was a nightmare for defenses. During his three seasons in green, Horford posted the best assist percentages of his 14-year career.
Horford was a highlight reel in a different way, as seen here:
Horford has only posted assist percentages over 20% in 4/14 seasons, one being his current stint with the Thunder, where he was benched for the year. At ages 30-32, Horford posted three-straight elite playmaking seasons for a big man, with assist percentages of 24.4%, 23.6% and 21.2%. Despite the decline in assists per game and assist percentage each year, Horford was a top-five center in each category every year he was a Celtic.
All of this points to the necessity of a better playmaking big in the Boston offense. The team has reverted to a lot of iso-ball recently, and has suffered from a lack of ball movement. Currently, they are the eighth-worst team in the league in team assists per game (23.3).
Robert Williams III has been flashing Horford-esque passes since the trade deadline, giving an indication he has elevated playmaking potential.
Against Minnesota at the start of overtime, Timelord sits near the top of the key looking for the ball. After Kemba Walker sets a screen for Jayson Tatum to cut, and Williams hits him with a fastball for an easy dunk.
It’s a simple pass, but a good one. Williams can read defenses, but what would elevate his game to a Horford-level is creating more opportunities for others on his own. In the above clip, he draws Karl Anthony-Towns out to the perimeter, but if Towns was a better defender he would give Williams more space.
Against better defensive units and better defending big men, Williams will need to become more of a threat outside the paint to receive the same defensive coverage.
However, Williams has an ability to draw the defense in a different way. Against Houston, Williams’ first assist of nine came on a nice offensive set which utilized Williams’ athleticism.
Facing Christian Wood, Williams receives a pass in the post and he moves to the perimeter immediately. After dumping the ball to Walker, Williams puts Wood in a tough spot with his positioning – Wood has to commit to either stopping Walker or Williams. The rolling threat of Williams pulls Wood toward the paint, away from Walker, who hits an open three.
As evident here, Williams can bend the defense in a different way than Horford. Where Horford was more of a consistent pick-and-pop threat, Williams can intimidate defenders with his rolling and lob-catching abilities, putting him in a position to find his teammates with plenty of space.
The next possession, Williams frees up Walker for another open three. Williams gets the ball at the top of the key, the Celtics go four out and then start moving. After a handoff, Wood notices Williams barreling toward Sterling Brown – an obvious mismatch – and he overcommits, leaving Walker against Houston, all alone.
Williams doesn’t need to have the same 3-point shooting ability as Horford to utilize his playmaking prowess at the top of the key. Stevens can use his athleticism and rim-running to draw defenses toward the paint, freeing open shooters as he did against Houston.
But, Williams would benefit greatly from any improvement to his jumper, which is a non-factor right now. Eventually, teams will begin adjusting to Timelord’s playmaking, and he will need to keep defenses guessing with additional wrinkles to his offensive arsenal.
Williams is young, and obviously, needs more improvement to reach elite center playmaking like Horford had. However, he has shown flashes of good vision, decision making and spacial awareness, three critical qualities in an NBA facilitator.
Williams is grabbing 15.4% of available offensive rebounds. He has shown the ability to create second-chance assists and create perimeter space with screens for a while now, but these recent facilitating flashes have defenses flat-footed, and should continue if Boston hopes to improve their team playmaking.