Ime Udoka still speaks like the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets assistant coach who scouted the Celtics for two consecutive postseason series. Now that he’s the new head coach in Boston, that experience offered him a unique perspective from behind enemy lines. He vowed to fix the mistakes Philly made with Al Horford and utilize him more in mismatches. He also recognized Boston’s reliance on isolation offense from the opposite sideline, promising to improve team assists.
His long preseason to-do list also includes reducing the wear-and-tear on Robert Williams III. During the Boston-Brooklyn series in May, Udoka witnessed the Celtics’ historic shot-blocking presence in Game 1 fall out of the series by Game 4. Williams wowed national analysts enough to turn heads outside of Boston in his third season, becoming a borderline top 100 player in the NBA posting dazzling analytics. That’s the player that Udoka would like to preserve for the entire year.
“We do want to build him up overall. I think growth is a constant thing with all of our guys,” Udoka said at practice Tuesday. “He’s at the stage in his career and that age where we want to see him improve overall ... we saw the difference between him being on-and-off the court in that Brooklyn series. We know how he impacts the game and things he does for the team, it’s a matter of him staying healthy and just showing improvement and growth overall. That’s increasing his minutes, increasing his role and obviously him signing an extension with us our vote of confidence with what he can do for our team.”
As of now, Udoka has not committed to Williams III as Boston’s starter despite that praise and contract. The critical questions for the Celtics’ x-factor are whether he can finish games and how much he plays all year; he averaged just 19 minutes per game with 13 starts last year, peaking at 27:43 in one game.
Williams wants to start, play 60 games and make an NBA All-Defense Team, one of his mentors told me this month. It’s all part of his development on the floor and he’s growing up off the court, too. He’s expecting a second child in January and moved out of his previous home with friends from Louisiana to a more private arrangement this summer.
The Celtics included incentives in Williams’ extension each of the next four seasons for reaching 69 games played and advancing in the postseason. They total $6 million at roughly $1.5 million per season. That means his deal is almost entirely guaranteed at $48 million, providing security Williams embraced.
“We’ve never had this much money,” Williams told his sister through tears after signing. “I cannot believe this. I cannot believe this.”
In the offseason, Brad Stevens brought in veterans the team’s youth. Al Horford returned as internal competition, as well as Josh Richardson at the wing and Dennis Schröder at point. The Celtics’ brass wanted to get older and more reliable. Enes Kanter returned in free agency, too. It’s not lost on Williams those former teammates will again serve as his mentors.
“With Al being back, it’s going to be fun,” Williams said Monday. “I ain’t get to play a lot with him my rookie year, but just the way he can space the floor and the way he’s so precise with what he does, I learned a lot from him every day ... how he take care of business, from his family to working out. It impacted me.”
Udoka and Stevens both assert that the team’s younger core will need to earn minutes and the fourth-year center is at the top of the list. However, it remains to be seen whether Williams is part of the center rotation, or is the center position for the Celtics, firmly establishing himself among the franchise cornerstones. Williams’ extension speaks to that somewhat, while also carrying some bookkeeping, flexibility motives. He’s got the money, but knows now he’ll have to play up to that contract.
“We still have a number of young guys,” Stevens said. “If they earn their way up into great opportunities, then they earn their way up into great opportunities. That’s beautiful. That’s great, but we want to make sure that we’re giving ourselves the best chance to accentuate our best players, and give ourselves multiple options, multiple avenues as a team to be good.”
Williams spent the first few weeks after the season staying off his feet. Once he recovered, he worked on his ball-handling and floor spacing. The player who Danny Ainge took a chance on at No. 27 in the 2018 NBA Draft was a raw athletic aberration. The player who Stevens invested in this summer has been snake bit with injuries, but Stevens saw enough in Williams’ work ethic and talent to believe in him.
“He changed so much physically,” Kanter said on Monday. “Last year, especially, I was watching some of the Celtics games and he was adding so much in his game. He can shoot now, he can pass, obviously we already know he can jump out of the gym. He is getting so much better and better every day, and he’s learning the game and he’s an amazing teammate.”
Chad Ford noted Williams leaped from Tier 5 to 3 in the league in multiple analytical categories last year. ESPN’s Zach Lowe praised him twice this month on his podcast as one of the most intriguing players in the league and a bargain contract, calling Williams the single biggest x-factor in the league in coming seasons — a monstrously good player if he rounds out. That can only happen if he plays more and from nearly every Celtics perspective from the front office to the coaching staff to the players, they’ve all boarded the Timelord hype train.
“Rob improved so much, not only through college, but NBA. He’s one of the best bigs in the NBA,” Grant Williams said on Monday. “He’s going to prove that this year, just passing the ball, athletically, he’s gifted, and you’ll see a little more growth from him and consistency.”