There’s an incredibly thin line between positional versatility and being a “tweener.” The former brings a connotation of positive impact while defending more than one position or playing more than one role. On the other hand, the latter infers no role really is a strength.
For Grant Williams, he continues to walk the tightrope between the two. A strong-bodied, high-IQ 6’6” forward, there are nights where he gets lost in the shuffle between wings and bigs that the Boston Celtics try too hard to delineate. Other games show the true value of a fluid frontcourt piece, where Grant can guard any position and stretch the floor effectively, two valuable complementary skills.
Right now, Grant is in a tough position where his position, as much as his play, is what may get him squeezed from the rotation. Improved play from Robert Williams of late, and additions of stretch-5’s Luke Kornet and Mortiz Wagner, take away from the possibility of siphoning off minutes at the 5. Similarly, the wing rotation is on the mend and due to be filled with slightly more burst and impactful pieces. Evan Fournier eats a ton of minutes off the bench, while Romeo Langford and Semi Ojeleye are deserving of minutes when healthy.
That leaves Grant Williams stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Since the All-Star break, Williams has shot 8-26 (30.8%) from 3-point range, and is averaging 3.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 18.2 minutes. In two of his last three contests, Grant has played fewer than ten minutes, both of which were scoreless affairs. The minutes crunch has already begun, and with fairly pedestrian numbers and little ability for the stat line to explode on any given night, it makes sense that he’d be odd man out.
What Williams does best is stand in the corner and reliably knock down catch-and-shoot treys. He’s at 40.3% on all catch-and-shoots this year, 39.5% from 3. According to his Basketball Reference page, he’s drilling 50% of his corner 3-pointers this year.
After a rocky start to his career from deep, Williams has turned the corners into his personal pop-a-shot game:
Unfortunately for Grant, the other wings aren’t scrubs in this department. Ojeleye is a career 39% shooter from the corners and has turned in some impressive games so far this year. When he’s healthy, he’s proven he deserves a solid 3&D role off the bench. Aaron Nesmith has shown steady improvements and, in theory, is a more respected shooting threat than Grant. The addition of Fournier to the team (note: never Google his name) has brought in a versatile shooting piece that allows the Celtics to run more movement-based sets. Neither Grant nor Semi can promise such a return.
All that means is that Grant needs to be better in other areas to maintain a role in the rotation.
Offensively, Williams hasn’t given much off the bounce of late. For such a high-IQ facilitator, the decisions he makes when attacking closeouts haven’t been remarkably positive. As a 50% shooter in the corners, guys will run him off the 3-point line with aggressive closeouts. It’s incumbent upon him to turn that into a 5-on-4 advantage and get to the rim, or at least find another wide-open shooter.
Instead, he can be indecisive, caught between layups and floaters, slow to rip past his man and lacking strength at the rim:
It feels like Grant missed his era by about a decade. Ten years ago, he would’ve been a killer small-ball 4 who facilitates from the elbows, where he’s best as a facilitator. Teams then ran a ton of Horns sets and played two guys at the elbows. Now, the floor needs to be spread more to keep up with 3-point pace around the league. Putting Williams at the elbows, especially when he plays the wing, keeps guys like Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown away from those areas and standing on the perimeter. That isn’t a recipe for success.
Defensively, Williams is reliably sturdy. He uses his strength well and can body some drivers. The combination of agility and length allows him to be switchable 1 thru 4. What Grant relies upon is his physical strength, the thick frame and burly chest that allows him to absorb contact and not lose ground.
To play that way, Williams tends to crowd guys in isolation or off closeouts. The legal banging he thrives on isn’t possible if he plays off guys. However, standing that close to NBA-caliber drivers does have consequences. The premier wings and best athletes he faces will rip the ball and drive around him, bringing his lateral quickness into question:
At the end of the day, Williams is a plus defender: these are isolated incidents against some premier offensive players. But those miscues are the same as the ones made by guys like Ojeleye, meaning Grant isn’t a major defensive upgrade. Other wings, like Langford and Nesmith, will play the 3 more naturally and slide Tatum to the 4. Brad Stevens tends to trust Tatum out there with the second unit for long stretches. If Tatum is more naturally a 4 in those minutes and can get premier spacing around him, the need for Grant to be playing the 4 is gone.
Why does all this matter?
We’re closing in on the midway point of Williams’ rookie deal. The Celtics are stockpiled with young players on rookie deals, and likely will add more this summer through the draft. As the front office prepares their books and appears ready to spend once the repeater tax count resets, not all of these young players can stay. The team will spend on veteran role players who help right away, and needs to create roster spots for those acquisitions.
Grant has proven to be a good shooter and a smart player. He can give serviceable minutes, albeit as the fifth wheel with a limited offensive role. At some point, serviceable isn’t going to be enough.
How do young players grow without a consistent path to minutes? It’s been the theme throughout the past two seasons on this Celtics’ roster. Some guys, like Timelord, have flourished and chipped away to carve out a bigger role, to the point where the team felt comfortable moving on from Daniel Theis. Others have struggled to capitalize on their minutes and are constantly guessing when their next DNP will come. That’s the razor’s edge that Grant finds himself at now.
The next few months are crucial for Williams, not just for his development but his future with the club.