Back in 2006, something clicked in Al Jefferson. He had hired a personal chef in the offseason and lost thirty pounds, but bone spurs lead to ankle surgery and four games into the regular season, he had an appendectomy. But despite that rocky start, he returned after a seven-game absence and eventually replaced Kendrick Perkins in the starting lineup. Jefferson took advantage of that window of opportunity to assert himself as a walking double-double on his way to a 14-year career and nearly $150 million in total salary.
Of course, Jefferson spent only three years in Boston. After that transformative season, he became the crown jewel of the Celtics offer to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett. While KG was winning a Defensive Player of the Year award and raising Banner 17 to the rafters the following year, Jefferson averaged more points and rebounds for the Timberwolves. He’d spend the next decade as a reliable rebounder and near 20-point scorer, but never making an All-Star team or going deep into the playoffs.
The circumstances are different, but for Robert Williams, he’s at a similar crossroads as Al Jefferson was in 2007. Even after signing a four-year, $54 million extension, his future is still uncertain, at least in Boston. There are two sliding windows that The Timelord can pass through this season. The TARDIS could land anywhere.
Ideally, he could deliver on the promise he teased last season. After the trade deadline in late March, Brad Stevens inserted Williams into the starting lineup after Daniel Theis was dealt to Chicago and the Celtics finished 10-3 with him at the 5 before losing him to left knee soreness. In nearly 24 minutes a game, Williams averaged a tidy 10 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks.
The individual numbers may not jump off the box score, but the eye test was tantalizing. Boston played easier and free with Williams at center. It was as if the Celtics — particularly the younger players including Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — knew that this was his time after working so hard over the last three years.
Maybe, just maybe, Robert Williams is the next KG, not necessarily the Kevin Garnett that was a ten-time All-Star and MVP in Minnesota, but the defensive anchor and occasional scorer that KG was in the twilight of his career in Boston. Or maybe he fills that Kendrick Perkins role on those Big Three teams: a significant role player on a championship team.
However, if the injury bug that’s limited him to just 132 games (regular and postseason) in three seasons happens to bite again, Williams could be the ballast of a trade for a superstar just like Al Jefferson in 2007. His contract actually totals $48 million over four years with incentives that include playing over 69 games a year, making the playoffs, and All-Defense considerations. Even if he doesn’t scrape his ceiling in Year 4, another team could see his potential and opt to insist on him being included in a trade rather than the expiring deal of Josh Richardson.
For Williams, much of this is out of his hands and really, it’s an unfortunate “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition. Play well and he could either be the future center of the Boston Celtics or the centerpiece of a mid-season deal for a superstar. Underperform and he could be toiling away as a coulda woulda shoulda and be salary filler in trades for the next five years.
For what it’s worth, in a press release announcing Williams’ extension, Stevens could not have been clearer about the team’s belief and intention. “Rob has embraced being a Celtic from Day 1. He is a great teammate and is completely committed to getting better. We’re excited that he will continue to do so here in Boston,” Stevens said.