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Does Robert Williams have a case for Most Improved Player?

Robert Williams is having a phenomenal season and has been crucial to Boston’s stout defense.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Throughout the season’s twists and turns, the continued evolution of Robert Williams has been a common thread for the Celtics. While he isn’t the only reason Boston’s defense has been so impressive (Al Horford and Marcus Smart deserve their flowers, too!), Williams and his skillset are something that cannot be replicated by anyone else on the Celtics roster, or arguably anyone else in the league. In an era where otherworldly athleticism separates the good from the elite, Robert Williams is in the rarest of air based on his physical gifts alone. Add in a sprinkle of court vision and a dash of improved conditioning, and we’ve started to see Robert Williams really starting to reach his potential.

It was never a lack of talent that held Boston’s young center back, but serious concerns about durability as well as concerns in the draft about his work ethic and a worrisome artery condition. Injuries were a talking point for Williams’ first three seasons in the NBA; in all fairness, the narrative wasn’t off the mark. Per Basketball Reference, Williams logged 113 games played over his first three seasons, and only 16 starts. Fast forward to now, and Williams has logged 57 games this season alone and started them all as Boston’s defensive anchor. But what’s most impressive is the workload increase that comes with it.

Boston Celtics v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Last season, Williams averaged just 18.9 minutes per game; now, he’s averaging 30 minutes per game in a significantly larger sample size. To give some perspective to this, Williams logged a grand total of 1,656 minutes across his first three regular seasons; he’s already eclipsed that with 1,711 minutes so far with 12 games left in the season. For a player that had been labeled with durability issues, that’s an insane jump in floor time, which shouldn’t be overlooked in terms of personal development. Williams put in the offseason work to get to this point, and his work on his body is paying dividends for Boston.

Per NBA Stats, of all starters with at least 30 games played, Williams has the lowest defensive field goal in the league at 40.2%, and opponents shoot -6.8% worse when defended by him (league-best differential). That differential is just above other elite bigs like Jarrett Allen (-6.5%), Rudy Gobert (-6.0%), Jaren Jackson Jr. (-5.4%), and Bam Adebayo (-5.3%). On top of that, Boston’s sultan of swat is 5th in blocks per game (2.2 BPG) and 2nd in total blocks on the season (126) behind Jaren Jackson Jr. (154).

The reacquisition of Al Horford has been huge for the development of Williams, and Horford’s presence has allowed Ime Udoka to use Williams in a “free safety” type of defensive role similar to how the Bucks use Giannis Antetokounmpo. Horford holds down the paint, which allows Williams to roam the space between the paint and the arc. This utilization of Williams’ skillset has been a big part of Boston’s defensive renaissance, with the team averaging 6 blocks per game (2nd best in the NBA behind Memphis) and a league-best defense with a rating of 105.5.

Williams’ impact goes far beyond being a defensive anchor for Boston, as the Celtics have used his passing and athleticism to the best of their abilities. Boston is 10th in offensive rebounding, a lot of that is due to Williams’ ability to pull down boards or swat them out to the perimeter to keep possessions alive. Of all starters with at least 30 games under their belt, Williams is 4th in offensive rebounding rate (12.9%). It’s also worth noting under the same parameters, he’s 2nd in effective field goal percentage (72.9%) and 1st in true shooting percentage (73.8%) while being the 5th lowest in usage rate (11.2%). While Williams isn’t getting a ton of looks, he’s most certainly making the most out of them, whether it be a put-back off of a missed field goal or a sky-high lob for a slam dunk finish.

This play from the Warriors game is a great example of how Williams has grown in terms of his awareness on offense. Marcus Smart and Robert Williams have an almost telepathic level of communication to catch the defense slacking; Williams starts with his back to Smart and doesn’t even turn his head to look for the pass until he’s already started cutting to the hoop. Williams takes a small step before suddenly bursting to the basket, and Smart knows exactly where to place the ball where only Williams can make the play and finish the lob. Another wrinkle in this is Derrick White moving crosscourt to the right slot, which pulls his defender away from the paint and leaves a wide-open path to the basket once Williams blows by his man.

These two clips from CelticsBlog alum Kevin O’Connor highlight the ever-expanding skillset of Williams as Boston has begun to run more of their offense through their bigs. On the first play, Williams fires a quick pass from the top of the arc directly into the paint to a cutting Jaylen Brown. On the second play, Williams is fighting for a rebound following a missed layup from Jaylen Brown. Williams initially looks to slam the basketball home, fails on the dunk attempt, and gets his hand on the rebound again. While in midair, he makes the quick decision to make a one-handed pass to Payton Pritchard, who hits the wide-open jumper in the corner.

Between his processing speed and his court vision, Williams is blossoming into a strong playmaker for the Celtics, and his continued growth and development raises the ceiling of this Boston team bit by bit. There’s no way to know exactly who is going to walk out with the Most Improved Player award this, or any of the other accolades for that matter (although some may say otherwise). The league as a whole is probably the most competitive and balanced it’s been in a very long time, and so many young players have taken huge leaps and bounds in their development. I don’t envy the voters one bit. But the one glaring thing is this: there needs to be more buzz about what Robert Williams is doing for the Celtics on both ends of the court.