Five games. That’s all it took for us to see the real Robert Williams. Operating in a reduced role due to a minutes restriction, the fifth-year center reminded us all what the Boston Celtics have been missing as he went for a double-double against the Houston Rockets, and he did it without dominating as a shot blocker.
He might not be up to full speed in terms of fitness or being on autopilot with the team’s new offensive sets, but when Williams is on the floor, everything seems to work better: the ball moves quicker; defenses are forced into tough decisions; there’s a presence on the glass — both offensive and defensive and best of all, his leaping ability gives opponents fits.
CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith mentioned this possession in his 10 Takeaways following the game. Still, I wanted to explore it a little further, as Williams’ movement on defense in this possession is a good encapsulation of what he brings to the team when he’s on the floor.
First of all, let’s give Jayson Tatum his flowers; he did one heck of a job as an on-ball defender in the possession, chasing his man around screens and ensuring there wasn’t a good shooting opportunity available. However, we’re focusing on Williams, who was operating as a drop defender in this instance, before stepping up to meet Tari Eason, whose floater is certainly affected by Williams’ presence. Almost as soon as Williams’ feet touch the floor, his hips flip toward the basket, and he’s back in the air to obtain the rebound.
Here’s another possession that shows the value of having Williams on the floor. Straight after a defensive rebound, the ball leaves Williams’ hands as he unloads the rock to Grant Williams before pointing towards the sprinting Jaylen Brown, encouraging Grant to make the early pass and push the tempo.
That’s what Williams does. He pushes the pace, and he thrives on open-court basketball, either as a passer, roll man, or simply as a trailer following his teammates up the court. It just so happens that the Celtics are also at their best when sprinting out off of defensive rebounds and attacking the space behind a defense.
With such an athletic presence hovering around the glass and contesting shooters across all three levels, Boston’s defense steps up to a whole new level. However, we also see similar improvements on the offensive end, especially when Williams is operating as a passer out of delay sets.
Check out this beauty of a pass for a cutting Jayson Tatum, and note how quickly Williams is looking to get the ball out of his hands.
While it’s an incredibly small sample size, it’s worth noting that Williams has one of the lowest ‘average seconds per touch’ on the Celtics roster, with the ball staying in his hands roughly 1.11 seconds per touch. However, it was the same last season, as (if we exclude Matt Ryan’s one game) Williams ranked dead last in seconds per touch, getting the rock out of his hands within 1.26 seconds.
The best way to describe it is that Williams is out there playing hot potato. There’s value in getting off the ball quickly.
Here’s another example of Williams looking to feed the rock inside. It’s funny too, because if the perimeter defense collapses to add pressure to the pass receiver, Williams is going to ghost into the painted area, hit the skies, and drop a monumental lob on somebody’s dome. Of course, that doesn’t happen in either of the clips I’ve shared here, but you can envision it becoming issue teams have to account for.
Finally, I want to take a moment to appreciate Williams’ ability and willingness as a screener because his off-ball activity is certainly infectious. Last season, Williams averaged 2.9 screen assists per game, generating 6.8 points. This year, with Boston predicting more of their offense off of flare screens, rip screens, and pin-ins, there’s a good chance Williams could sit closer to the top of that statistical leaderboard.
Here we have Williams coming off a Tatum set stack action before flowing into a pick-and-roll possession with Derrick White — as White penetrates, Williams sets a gut screen (a down screen in the center of the floor) to pin Tatum’s defender and provides the necessary space for Tatum to receive a pass and get into a shooting motion.
The possession ends in a bucket, and Tatum tags three points to his total. Williams, however, is arguably the most impactful piece in the entire action, as it was his screening ability that initially sprung White free, and it was his screening ability that ensured Tatum had the space to set his feet and get into his shot.
Here is another, albeit less pronounced, display of what Williams brings to the offense as a screener. The possession begins with the Celtics running their quick action to get Jaylen Brown the ball at the top of the perimeter, which makes the defense have to defend both the threat of a three-point shot and the danger of Brown dropping his shoulder and exploding downhill toward the rim.
As Brown receives that pass, Williams flips his screening angle and takes Brown’s defender completely out of the action, giving one of the Celtics' best offensive weapons an unencumbered look at the rim, which of course, he converts.
We’re likely still months away from Williams returning to full game shape and potentially regaining his spot back within the Celtics' starting five, but with each passing contest, we’re already seeing the impact he can make on the court beyond that of being a lob and block threat due to his verticality. Robert Williams is back, and he’s making an impact. Now, it’s just about getting him acclimated with Joe Mazzulla’s offensive and defensive system and allowing him to build back up to the level we saw him operating at last season.
Until then, it’s going to be fun watching Williams come off the bench and shake opposing second units to the core.