Low expectations are often a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s easy to impress when people expect so little, but on the other hand, if there’s no expectation, there’s no motivation and it becomes easy to coast by.
Not for Grant Williams, who for most of last season was the whipping boy for Celtics fans and media alike. Often branded too small to play the center position and too big and slow for a perimeter role, it looked like Williams was standing on the brink of irrelevance.
However, Williams spent the off-season re-inventing himself and has become a core member of the Boston Celtics rotation. A 50% conversion rate on corner threes has gone a long way to changing the narrative around his fit on the team and long-term potential in the league. Of course, Williams is more than just a spot-up shooter from the corners, or at least, that’s the message he’s trying to send this year.
We’ve seen a vast improvement when defending the perimeter, a high IQ when executing the Celtics switching schemes, and a willingness to fight on the glass. Couple those on-court developments with his growing vocal leadership, and we’re finally starting to see the mini-Draymond Green we all hoped Williams could become.
There was a short stint at the end of February and beginning of March where it looked like Williams might be regressing back to his inefficient former self, and while it didn’t affect the team’s overall performances, it was certainly a sub-plot to consider nearing the playoffs.
When looking at his three-point shooting numbers, Williams’ worst stretch of play came between the Celtics' March 6 game against the Brooklyn Nets and March 16 game against the Golden State Warriors. Over that five-game stretch, the combo forward shot just 13.3% from deep on 3 attempts per game and was also struggling from the field, converting 34.6% of his looks.
A cold spell was inevitable, though. Teams aren’t going to continue passively guarding one of the league's best shooters; they’re going to start sending better defenders, or trying new schemes to force the rock out of his hands. And as defenses alter how they play you, it will take several film sessions and game practice to develop or improve other ways to be effective.
Against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night, Williams snapped out of his slump and quickly showed the improvements that have made him become so important to the Celtics bench this season.
The first wrinkle a shooter needs to add to their game is being able to attack close-outs. Some shooters will take a step inside and settle for an uncontested long two and others will look for the extra pass. But, Williams has continued to work on putting the ball on the floor and pressuring the rim, which when you consider his impressive low-post repertoire, is a reasonable decision.
As you can see in the above clip, the Nuggets' defense quickly looks to scramble Williams out of the corner and avoid being hurt by yet another three-point shot in the second quarter. The third-year combo forward obliges the defense and comes off his line, before taking on three defenders and hitting a turnaround fadeaway. Granted, that type of shot from the shooting specialist isn’t ideal, nor is it likely to be an efficient look for him moving forward, but it forces the defense to think before closing out hard throughout the rest of the game.
Here’s another clip of Williams attacking the close-out by putting the rock on the floor and pressuring the rim, except this time it ends in an emphatic dunk from the surging chatterbox.
At 6’6’’ Williams isn’t exactly a threat on the offensive glass, but his strong base and impressive strength mean that he can be a handful for smaller wings when he’s crashing the boards.
If your shots aren’t falling, and you need a quick pick-me-up, an offensive board followed by a putback could be just what the doctor ordered. Granted, Williams had already snapped out of his slump by this point, but by bullying his way to an easy two points, he may have found another area of the floor he can be of service.
Udoka has previously noted how he likes his players to get back on defense after a miss - which considering the team’s current dominance on defense, makes perfect sense. But if Robert Williams is out of the offensive play, having Williams use his strength to command some rebounding space might be a good secondary option.
Of course, Williams’ 13 points were a welcome return following a few games of offensive anonymity, but he also continued to provide some exceptional defense. It’s worth noting that during his mini-slump, the Texas native never fell off from a defensive standpoint, so while his shots might not have been falling for a short stretch, he was still contributing towards the Celtics identity.
Still, the former 22nd pick still finished the Celtics game against the Nuggets as the game leader in contested shots with 13 while holding the reigning MVP in Nikola Jokic to 33.3% shooting during the 3:54 that he matched up with him.
More on Grant Williams. He finished last night's game as the leader in contested shots with 13 and held Jokic to 33.3% shooting when matched up with him - although limited sample size of 3:54.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) March 21, 2022
Furthermore, Williams ended the game with two blocks! The first block came courtesy of some impressive lateral quickness. As you will see in the below play, Williams is operating as the low helpline defender and is tasked with providing help defense on any drive while also being a primary box-out rebounder if a shot is taken. As the ball works its way around the perimeter, Williams quickly closes out to the strongside corner, contests the shot, and gets the swat.
The second block comes on Nikola Jokic and is a testament to Williams’ core strength, he battles on the low block with Jokic before sticking with the play to get the rearview block.
Overall, this was a picturesque performance from Williams, who has continually found ways to help the Celtics this season and earn himself a large role within the rotation. While he’s unlikely to get much consideration for Most Improved Player this season, it’s hard to imagine where Boston would be without his sharpshooting and defensive versatility.
Now that Williams has snapped out of their funk, we can look forward to more performances like this one, where he impacts games on the margins and contributes to the offense with his hyper-efficient corner three game.