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CelticsBlog exit interview: Robert Williams is running out of time

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When healthy, Williams is Boston’s best big man on both ends of the floor.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Life is made up of memorable moments, fleeting passages of time that freeze frame in our minds. We all remember the song playing when we had our first kiss, the sneakers we had on when we passed our driving test, or the snacks we were eating when the Boston Celtics last won a championship. Of course, some of those memories hold greater value to us, but they all share the same headspace.

Remember at school, there was always that one kid who was a born jester, or the kid you were sure would be a millionaire before turning 21? Guaranteed they had nicknames, good or bad, you knew them by a social moniker rather than their actual name.

For most Celtics fans, a social moniker is how they’ve come to know Robert Williams: the Timelord. We’ve all slept through our alarms at some point, turned up late to work or school, got chewed out about it, and moved on.

I bet Williams could remember precisely where he was when he first heard that nickname.

Three years into William’s NBA tenure, he’s still reminded about that fateful morning; a quick scroll through Celtics Twitter, and you can find countless artistic gems depicting the Celtics center as a master of time and space.

The Timelord name has become synonymous with this current iteration of the Celtics while personifying the best and worse of the current roster. When healthy, Williams is a high-flying rim protector on defense and jaw-dropping lob threat on offense. Sprinkle in the third-year big’s playmaking ability, and it’s easy to become enamored with his floor raising ability.

But, alas, despite Williams’ high impact on the floor, he’s seldom available. Long stretches of injury have kept the Texas A&M product from reaching his true potential thus far and have left a cloud over his long-term future with the franchise.

There’s no doubt that this season has been Williams’ best, both in terms of production and availability. However, when given the playing time, the Timelord has been a force of nature as he’s deterred attempts at the rim while also helping orchestrate the offense.

Under Brad Stevens, Williams was utilized as a de-facto playmaker, operating in delay sets (a five-out offense where the big has possession of the ball above the break) and utilizing dribble handoffs before slipping to the rim, dragging the defense along with him. In addition, Stevens understood that a team lacking size could make use of Williams’ explosiveness by having him initiate offensive sets before cutting or rolling to create driving lanes.

Here’s an example of a Williams-initiated set. Starting out in delay, the Celtics run a play known as Chicago (when a pin down screen is set for a shooter, and the shooter then collects the dribble handoff). Once the 6’8” center gives up the rock, he rolls directly towards the rim. The defense has done their homework on this possession and doesn’t allow Williams to get into an offensive position around the basket - but you get how these plays can quickly end up in a world-altering dunk.

It’s those moments, those dunks, that have endeared Williams to the Celtics fanbase.

“I don’t know at the time. I look over to the bench afterwards to see my teammates’ reaction. If they’re cheering, I know I did something amazing,” Robert Williams explained during a press conference earlier this season.

Boasting a unique rim-rocking ability, it’s no wonder the 27th pick in the 2018 draft finished the season with 75% of his attempts coming at the rim - and in case you’re wondering, Williams’ converted 79% of those attempts, as he converted 147 of 187 total rim attempts. But where did the other 25% of his shots come from? Mid-range, 19% coming within 14 feet of the bucket and 6% residing between 14 feet and the three-point line.

Personally, I’ve been vocal in championing for Williams to take more mid-range attempts. As the team’s best offensive creator who is consistently used in the short-roll, a mid-range jumper will add diversity to his shot selection, forcing defenses to adjust.

Unfortunately, I might be the only one residing on Timelord mid-range island, as he only converted 31% of his 16 attempts. Yet, there is a noticeable increase in this shot type compared to previous seasons, so maybe there is still room for Williams to continue improving his scoring touch in the short-roll pocket.

So far, we’ve hit on Williams’ ability to run the offense in delay and Chicago sets, along with operating in the short roll, but how important is his offensive creation? Short answer? Incredibly important. According to Cleaning The Glass, when Williams is on the floor, he accounts for 13.9% of his teammates made shots, and those are only the ones he directly assists on.

Hockey assists, dump-offs, off-ball manipulation of the defense, and simple vertical spacing: Williams provides the team with a plethora of avenues to explore due to his presence and court vision.

When healthy, there’s a reasonable argument to have Williams as one of the best passing big men in the league, possibly second to only Nikola Jokic.

Thus far, we’ve looked at all the juicy details from Williams’ offensive game and how he’s affected games on that end this season. Yet, it would be an absolute travesty if we didn’t look at Louisiana native’s defensive improvement and impact, starting with the most prominent area: blocks.

Luckily we don’t need to cast our minds too far back to get an excellent example of the rim protection the third-year big provided the Celtics this season. In the opening game of Boston’s first-round series against Brooklyn, the lord of time was on fire defensively, swatting shots from every angle while providing textbook-level help defense.

“He’s one of the reasons why we didn’t shoot so well.” James Harden told reporters after the opening game of the series. While Kyrie Irving gushed, “he’s shifting over on every one of our drives. His timing is amazing.” High praise from some of the best scorers in the league’s history.

Despite Williams’ lofty block numbers, his inconsistent availability cost him a place among the league’s top 5 shot blockers (he finished 6th). However, if he should get an entire season of health, you can’t help but think he would be a contender for the league leader in this category.

We all remember when the 23-year-old was drafted and how his pogo-stick-like defense on every head fake provided uncontested lanes to the hoop. Yet, in his third year, in what is often known as the year players take a jump in production, Williams figured out how to provide rim deterrence while staying grounded and using his hips to feel opponents’ movements.

How great is it to see your roughest of diamonds finally start to take sparkle?

Now, I’m by no means alluding to blocks as a critical indicator of defense or that Williams’ gravity-defying rim protection elevates the team’s defensive potential almost singlehandedly. However, there’s comfort in knowing that there’s a human security blanket patrolling the help-lines ready and waiting to bail you out should rotation break down or you get cooked off the dribble.

So, there we have it! An all-encompassing improvement trajectory that saw Williams display growth in all facets of his game! Yet, there’s still one dark cloud hanging over his head.

Having missed 20 regular-season games and two playoff games, Williams could not string together a healthy season for the third year running. During his rookie year, the Louisiana native was listed as inactive for 30 games of the season. Last year in his sophomore season, Williams’ was marked as inactive for 36 games. So there’s a pattern forming here, right?

It’s ironic that a player dubbed Timelord is running out of the one resource he’s supposed to command. As Williams enters the final season of his contract, President Of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens (jeez, it feels weird writing that) has a decision to make. Does he trust Williams to finally overcome the injury bug and continue to develop into the high-level center he’s capable of becoming, or does he look to package Williams in part of a trade to bring in a lesser talent who’s consistently available?

Personally, I hope Stevens offers Williams a team-friendly extension on a 2 + 1 kind of scale. However, for now, all we know for sure is that regardless of injuries, Williams is improving and still has oceans of room left to grow. That alone should be encouraging.