Heading into the 2021-22 season, Grant Williams was asked to change his role. After spending his first two years in the league built to play the backup center position, he’d have to transition into being a full-time power forward. That meant trimming down and having to play a little quicker.
“My rookie year, I had to gain weight to play the 5. Then I never lost that weight. Now, I’ve lost 12-15 pounds. I’ve got another 8-10 to lose to be able to play the 4 more,” Williams said at 2021-22 Media Day. “I want to be like a ‘Baby Al’.”
And after making those changes, Williams thrived. He enjoyed a breakout season this past year, shooting 41.1% from three-point range and switching onto multiple positions on the defensive side of the floor. Williams was the perfect versatile bench piece to lead Boston’s second unit.
But now, he may be forced to change his role once again.
The Boston Celtics made some crucial additions this summer, adding both Danilo Gallinari and Malcolm Brogdon to their second unit. In turn, their depth looks a lot more polished, but with every important addition comes a subtraction. Boston sent out Daniel Theis in the Brogdon trade, leaving them without a true backup center. In addition, they also dealt Aaron Nesmith, and while he didn’t play regular minutes for Boston, the deal leaves them without any true backup wings.
With Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Payton Pritchard, and Brogdon, Boston’s guard room looks set. However, they could still use some help on the wing and at the backup center position. And with no real impactful free agents left on the board, and the hesitance to overspend on an 11th-man on the roster, Williams could be left to fill in the gaps.
The 23-year-old’s aforementioned versatility could mean that Ime Udoka chooses to utilize him in more roles than last year. He’s quick enough to spend some time at the wing but also big enough to play up and guard big men; he was integral in defending Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo in the playoffs. With no real wing depth and a glaring hole at the backup center position, having Williams on the roster gives the Celtics some much-needed wiggle room.
Last season, Williams spent 94% of his time at the power forward position. But with Gallinari entering the mix and Boston’s holes at the backup center and wing positions, that is set to change. In order to adapt to his potential new responsibilities, however, Williams will need to focus on improving in certain areas of his game.
Moving off the ball
Williams was known for one key aspect of his game last season - corner threes. Half of all the threes he attempted last year came from the corner, and he shot 46.9% on those attempts. But if he wants to spend more time at the wing, learning to move off the ball will be vital to his success.
Now, this doesn’t mean Williams will be expected to turn into Duncan Robinson in one offseason, but doing more off the ball than sitting in the corner and waiting for drive-and-kicks would open up both his and the Celtics’ offensive game. Whether this means teammates should set screens for him, he should be setting more screens, or simply him getting more comfortable shooting from the wing, his continued development from behind the three-point line will be key.
Again, moving off the ball doesn’t have to mean mimicking Robinson and JJ Redick. Even little adjustments like this one would help Williams’ game.
As Pritchard drives into the paint, Williams’ tiny adjustment allows him to get wide open for a three on the wing. Seth Curry turned around to help on the drive, but by the time he got his bearings back, Williams had moved. This may not seem like much, but considering most of Williams’ threes came from him standing still in the corner, moving like this more often will be key.
Obviously, in an ideal world, Williams would be able to move even more off the ball than in the clip shown above. Having him come off screens and work off dribble hand-offs would be great, but before he gets to that point, he’ll have to take baby steps.
If defenses can account for Williams in the corner at all times, they don’t need to worry about him as much. They know where he’ll be at all times. And while that worked for him as a power forward, if he’s going to be spending time at the wing, he’ll need to diversify his game, and little movements like this are the start of that.
Whether he’s spending time at the wing, as the power forward, or playing small-ball center, cutting without the ball is likely the biggest addition he can make to his game.
As mentioned, when Williams’ entire offensive game consists of him sitting in the corner and waiting for drive-and-kick opportunities, the defense doesn’t have to think. Sure, they can get pulled in by the drive, but they’ll always know where Williams is. But if he can learn to find the right spots to cut, it will create a whole new dynamic within Boston’s offense.
Here’s one (extremely slow) example.
It may be a bit hyperbolic, but this could be the slowest cut any professional basketball player has ever made. Molasses-like, even. Williams runs in line with White on the drive, giving him an extra option for a dump-off pass. Now, one could argue that this was intentional by Williams because if he had cut any faster, Marvin Bagley would have been there to contest his shot at the rim, but regardless, this is a nice start. Seeing Williams have the wherewithal to leave the corner and find a shot inside the paint is definitely progress.
This part of Williams’ game shouldn’t be too hard to bring out, as he played in the post a ton at Tennessee. He barely shot any threes in college, so working inside to get quality looks was his primary source of scoring. It’s going to be a slow process, but learning to cut off the ball by watching the film of guys like Bruce Brown and Javonte Green could help a bunch.
This is something Williams showed flashes of last season. Being able to drive off of closeouts will be another key piece to his improvement. With how good of a shooter he’s become, defenders will be quick to close out. If Williams can drive the closeout and open up more opportunities within the offense, that’d be amazing.
Here’s an example of Williams doing just that last season.
As soon as LaMarcus Aldridge moves towards him to defend the three, Williams drives right past him for an easy layup. There were times he was able to do this and make clean dump-off passes, too, but in this case, a layup was the result.
Now, the reason this is a work in progress and not already a big part of Williams’ game is the speed with which he can drive closeouts. Aldridge is probably the slowest defender Williams would ever have to blow by, so seeing him get past the Nets big man is relatively unsurprising. If Williams can start driving past faster wings and more athletic big men, then he’ll be a problem on the drive.
This is the part of Williams’ game that he largely abandoned when he slimmed down before the start of last season. He played the role of a small-ball center during his rookie season, struggled to adapt to the power forward in his sophomore season, and then cut the necessary weight to play the 4 last year. But with no go-to backup center on the roster (outside of Kornet), Williams could end up playing the center a bit.
Now, just because he lost the weight doesn’t mean he’s completely useless against bigs. He may have trimmed down but he’s still one of the strongest players in the league. Williams is able to stick with bigs a lot more often than some might realize, and the perfect example of that is Joel Embiid.
With Robert Williams out of the lineup on February 15, the Celtics were more than comfortable having Grant Williams spend ample time guarding Embiid. He guarded the Philadelphia 76ers big man for 2:44 of game time, holding him to one point on 0-of-2 shooting from the field.
Here are the two shots Embiid managed to get off.
And if that’s not enough evidence, Williams’ “Batman” nickname comes as a result of him shutting down Nikola “The Joker” Jokic. On March 20, he held the Nuggets center to 3-of-9 shooting from the field (and 2-of-8 from inside the three-point line), using his defensive IQ to slow down the two-time MVP.
All of this is to say that Williams is still perfectly comfortable matching up with opposing centers. But if the Celtics plan on playing him at that position more next season, then bulking back up while maintaining his quickness would be a smart offseason goal (even though doing both may sound like a big ask).
With how well he played last season, Williams is undoubtedly going to be a key cog in Boston’s rotation. He’s the best pure shooter they have on the roster and one of their most important defensive pieces, too. And most importantly, he’s clearly earned the trust of Udoka.
The versatility he brings to the table will help him fit the mold of whatever role Udoka decides to play him in, whether that’s spending more time on the wing or being the team’s default third-string center. He’ll be able to do it all for the Celtics.
However, if he wants to excel in all of these areas, he has plenty of work to do this offseason. Diversifying his offensive game, in particular, will be crucial to his success, and preparing himself to guard more bruisers down low may be necessary as well. But as the Celtics get prepped for another deep playoff run, having him on the roster is a huge benefit.