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Grant Williams’ big chance

As with most of the Boston Celtics, very little went right for Grant Williams last season. Now, he has an opportunity to get back on track.

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Grant Williams has become something of a litmus test for fans of the Boston Celtics. In some ways, you can see the mercurial nature of last season’s ill-fated squad reflected in the 22year-old’s sophomore campaign. One group looks at him and sees a short center that lacks lineup versatility or scoring touch, a player that struggles to put numbers on the board and seems prone to boneheaded fouls during his sparing minutes on the court. On the other side, some see a canny young big with great feel for the game and a reliable jumper, the kind of player who fills little gaps in ways that aren’t reflected in the box score.

In truth, Grant Williams is all of those things. He’s an unusual player with an unusual fit, a 6-foot-6 big man on a roster with four centers that have more typical positional size. He’s also one of the best shooters on the team (after the two Jays, of course). After a rookie season in which he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, he found his catch-and-shoot rhythm last season, connecting on 37% of his attempts, including a torrid 20-of-45 stretch in January and February.

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Defensively, he’s a high-IQ player who plays with awareness and hustle, which is how he found his way onto the court in some crucial moments under the notoriously-stingy-with-rookies Brad Stevens. The size remains a question mark. Williams is remarkably strong, but 6-foot-6 just isn’t quite enough length to protect the rim, and at 240 pounds, it’s reasonable to question if he has the mobility to keep up with quicker wings if he’s playing outside. He’s also unacceptably prone to fouling, piling up 5.3 fouls per 36 minutes thus far in his NBA career.

The Celtics certainly have a space that he can fill, if he proves he can fill it. At the moment, the clearest gap in the depth chart is at the four and as the relief for Jayson Tatum. This is a wing-centric team that will play small more often than not (though as Tatum grows ever more jacked, “small” becomes a bit misleading), but a more traditional option at the four will be needed eventually.

Williams should certainly be an upgrade over the departed Semi Ojeleye in that regard. He can assume Ojeleye’s primary role of checking large forwards with little issue, and bring more awareness and a pinch more versatility to those minutes as well. Additionally, he’s already a better shooter than Ojeleye ever was, and he’s not so strictly limited to catch-and-shoot attempts, either.

Williams will have to fend off other comers, though. Jabari Parker is still on the roster, at least for now. He’ll have to earn his spot in training camp, but if he does, he’ll get a chance for some spot minutes at the four. Newcomer Juancho Hernangomez will factor in as well, a reasonable flyer on a 26-year-old who flashed borderline rotation-level talent in the past. Perhaps the aging Al Horford has a little bit of juice left to survive alongside Robert Williams for stretches, as he once did with Aron Baynes. It’s not the most inspiring slate of options, and the window is open for Williams to establish himself as a nightly rotation big.

Learning to play alongside Robert Williams may be the most crucial development for Grant in the long term. The dual-Williams pairing did not fare particularly well last season. In 331 minutes together on the court, Grant and Robert posted a net rating of -5.4, significantly worse than his 324 minute with Tristan Thompson (-1.8) or his 175 with Daniel Theis (-0.6). Obviously there is a lot of noise involved with net rating for a two-man lineup (the other three players on the court matter, too), but it’s a large enough difference that we can surmise there is some improvement needed if they’re going to work together moving forward.

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It’s noteworthy also that Williams’ best frontcourt partner last season was also the team’s closest approximation of a stretch big. This is where Horford’s return to Boston becomes particularly interesting. Theis is a decent shooter, capable of knocking down open looks when the ball comes his way, but he’s not a player that commands a defense’s attention on the perimeter. Even at his advanced age, Horford is a completely different ballgame, not only able to knock down the three-ball at a high clip, but also initiate offense from outside as a playmaker as he did under Stevens. He’s going to clear the paint for Williams in a way no Boston big really has before, offering him an opportunity to work in the mid-to-high post comfort zone he enjoyed in college.

So who is Grant Williams really? Is he a curiosity along the lines of “Chuck Hayes with a jumper?” Or can he be something more? This is a player who has seen the court in games that really matter; lest we forget that he shined in crucial minutes down the stretch of the Game 7 win over Toronto in the bubble playoffs. As a late first round pick, he was hardly drafted to be a top-of-rotation kind of player, but it feels like he’s capable of more than the sporadic, inconsistent role he’s played thus far.

Nothing about last season went as anybody might have hoped, but the dawn of a new one is upon us. The slate is clean again, and there are minutes available for the taking. It’s time for Williams to leave last season’s struggles behind him and seize the opportunity ahead.

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