If we were to hold a Boston Celtics season awards ceremony tonight, Grant Williams would be the unequivocal winner of "Most Improved Player," not only because of his vastly improved three-point shot. Throughout the season, we've seen the seeds of leadership start to sprout around the talkative big-man, both vocally and in terms of his playstyle.
Williams, who was often a scapegoat last season, has started to fulfill the role we originally envisioned for him; the high-IQ three-and-d big, a switchable defender, and physical presence in the paint.
Any data we use that pairs the Celtics starters with a bench player will be a small sample size, primarily because Boston has seldom had its starting five available this season. But when looking at Cleaning The Glass lineup data, one five-man unit stood head and shoulders above the rest.
In the 54 possessions, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams have shared the court together this season; the Celtics are a +30.2 and boast a 72.4% effective field-goal rating. That unit is also one of the Celtics' more reliable defensive rebounding lineups, securing 66% of opponents' missed shots, which bodes well for Ime Udoka's desire for a fast-paced offense.
Of course, the sample size is minuscule. Still, it's worth mentioning as there's a significant possibility that this is the Celtics starting five of the future, which makes any positive numbers a reason to be optimistic.
Celts are now 8-5 (.615) in games started by their normal starting 5— Dan Greenberg (@StoolGreenie) January 24, 2022
One of the more prevalent rotations Williams has found himself a part of is when he's paired with Tatum and Al Horford in the frontcourt, alongside a backcourt of Dennis Schroder and Smart. In the 175 possessions that unit has played together, the Celtics have been a +24.1 and sit in the 93rd percentile for points per 100 possessions, averaging 129.1. It's also worth noting that this unit sits third in Boston's most impactful lineups at the season's halfway point.
So, it's safe to assume that Williams positively impacts the team from a statistical standpoint when he's on the floor. But statistics don't track everything, as we've come to learn after multiple years of cheering for Smart. Sometimes, it's a player's "ilities" that make them valuable: switchability, versatility, adaptability, and so forth. While this rings true for Smart, it's also true for Williams, and we saw a ton of those "ilities" on show against the Washington Wizards on Sunday afternoon.
It all started with the North Carolina native's defensive switchability.
There are not many young bigs in the league who would be willing, or able, to step onto the perimeter and guard Bradley Beal. Even less of those bigs would be able to stay with the All-Star scoring magician once he decides to drive the lane, yet Williams readily steps up to the challenge and ends the possession with a rear-view block.
It's never ideal to have a four or five guarding a shifty guard or wing on the perimeter, but mismatches such as those are inevitable in a switch-everything system. Of course, the hope is the wing/guard receives a ball-screen, and the subsequent switch takes your big man away from the point of attack and resets the defense (assuming a guard is switched onto the screening big). Still, elite scorers like to isolate when they get a favorable matchup. Meaning you need the player personnel to execute such a system correctly, and Williams is proving to be a vital piece of the jigsaw for Udoka.
On offense, Williams' ability to adapt to a role as a corner three-point threat has been one of the most discussed topics this season. As a rookie, the 23-year-old shot a paltry 27% on corner threes, then we saw a drastic uptick in his sophomore season when he hit 43% of his corner attempts, while he's hitting 50% of those looks this year.
If you've ever wondered why the Celtics are so enamored with developing Tatum as a ball-handler, the above clip is an excellent example. Keep your eye on Kyle Kuzma, and note how tentative he is to help off of Williams in the corner. As Tatum drives, the Wizards 26-year-old forward is put in a tough spot.
As the weakside low man, Kuzma is expected to help on a drive, but it leaves Boston's best corner-three shooter wide open if he does so. Ultimately, Tatum draws the additional defense, dragging four bodies into the paint before kicking out to Williams for the wide-open three. As an aside, when people talk about rim pressure, watching Tatum's recent games and focusing on how defenses react to his drive paints a perfect picture.
Finally, we can look at the Tennessee alum's versatility.
We're all aware that Williams is a viable small-ball five option and that he can give you spot minutes at the three if you're in a pinch, but he can also be your pick-and-pop man, screener, or operate as either a help or point of attack defender. There is a reason stores still sell swiss-army knives, and it's not because they make good gifts. Sometimes you don't have room or reason to carry a knife, screwdriver, corkscrew, and ruler around the street, but a USB-sized device that can give you all of those items and more? Well, that's downright handy.
The same can be said about Williams. Often written off due to his "tweener" label and not considered to be a viable option on a contending team, he fills multiple roles without hesitation and does so at a high level. That's why when playing against the Wizards, the 6-foot-7 big notched 10 shot contests, including one on the perimeter, and it's why his shot profile in the game reads: corner three, lay-up after driving a close-out, above the break three on a pick-and-pop.
This is the same player that came out of college with a reputation as a low-post threat. He is the same guy who missed 25 threes to begin his NBA career. And the same talkative sophomore that deemed himself too overweight. Now, he's a versatile big who fulfills whatever role his team needs. We've seen him defend guards, bang with bigs, run fake dribble hand-offs, and even attempt side-step jumpers - and Williams is still improving.
So, while Robert Williams is gaining the media attention for his breakout season, and the team's two star wings gain most of the narrative discussion, Grant Williams is quietly setting himself up for a long-term role on the Celtics (or any other team's) roster and has shown exponential improvement since entering the NBA.
The game against the Wizards might not have been Williams’ best performance, but that’s when best to judge a role player. Because if they’re still impacting winning when playing sub-optimally, you know their impact is sustainable long-term.