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Robert Williams III and the legacy of a role player

Looking back on the Timelord’s incomplete-but-memorable Celtics career

Robert Williams STUFFS Jimmy Butler in the 2023 ECF David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Williams III’s tenure with the Boston Celtics began on shaky ground. Drafted by then-Celtics GM Danny Ainge with the 27th overall pick, the young center infamously missed his introductory press conference with the team, and shortly thereafter, missed a flight to Boston for his first practice with the team. Taken along with his surprise slide down the first round of the NBA Draft — many saw him as a potential top-ten talent after his freshman season at Texas A&M — this quickly became a point of concern in the Boston media sphere.

First impressions proved to be wrong when it came to the athletic young center, and went on to spawn the playful nickname that became the popular touchstone of his tenure in Boston. Occasionally misconstrued, the “Timelord” name was never meant as a mockery of Williams’ initial tardiness, but rather, more of a kayfabe explanation for it — laughing with him, not at him. A Timelord is never late, young Celtics fan. He arrives precisely when he means to.

The nickname took on new meaning when Williams hit the court. It applied well to his quick-twitch athleticism and penchant for blocking jump shots, as if he were bending time itself to get his hand on the ball. It wasn’t long before it found a whole new life from there. What started as a running gag between a small group of Twitter users was eventually being repeated by Doris Burke on national TV. Talk about building a reputation.

Now, the Timelord has changed time zones. Shipped off to Portland in the three-team trade that brought Jrue Holiday to Boston, Williams has joined a young, retooling Trail Blazers team and his career as a Celtic has, at least for now, come to a close. His five years in Boston were spent as a developing player oozing with potential, but the realization of that potential will happen elsewhere, as the contract extension he signed with the Celtics in 2021 will keep him in Portland through his age-28 season.

With a few weeks of separation from the trade, we can now ask: looking back, what do we make of a player like Williams?

On the court, the picture is pretty clear. Williams is a one-of-one athlete at the center position, a walking pogo stick with jaw-dropping vertical ability who thrilled Boston crowds with his prodigious talents at the rim. There’s nothing quite like watching a healthy Williams go to work in the pick-and-roll. Regardless of how bad the lob pass might be – and the Celtics have certainly thrown some stinkers in recent years – nothing ever seemed quite out of reach for his 7-foot-6 wingspan and 40-inch vertical leap. He may very well be the most remarkable athletic talent to ever don a Boston uniform.

Those tools manifested on the other end of the court, as well. Hardly inconvenienced by the constraints of gravity, Williams was one of the NBA’s most prolific and exciting shot-blockers from the moment he arrived on the scene. No shot is ever completely safe from him, not even from behind the three-point arc, where he developed a penchant for surprising would-be sharpshooters on close-outs. Early in his career, Williams went through the typical trials and tribulations faced by young bigs in the NBA, struggling with positioning and foul trouble. By the team’s run to the NBA Finals, though, he had fully blossomed into a legitimate All-Defense caliber weapon.

Williams’ talent has always been undeniable, but keeping that talent on the court proved problematic. The other side of his draft day fall was a serious concern regarding his long-term health and durability. Williams was diagnosed with popliteal artery entrapment syndrome, an artery disease, in both legs, the first in a lengthy chain of physical concerns that have limited his ability to maintain a presence on the basketball court. He played more than half of an NBA regular season just twice in his Celtics career.

The 2021-22 season stung the most. In the midst of a breakout year and climbing the ranks of Defensive Player of the Year hopefuls for his part in the Celtics’ stunning midseason turnaround, Williams tore his meniscus in March of 2022. The injury cost him the remainder of the regular season, and though he returned for the team’s run to the NBA Finals, he only fleetingly played up to his customary level. The consequences of the injury and its treatment lingered into the following season, as a clean-up procedure on the knee led to further recovery, and contributed to a 2022-23 campaign that saw him appear in just 35 regular season games.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Dreams of a homegrown Boston championship finally met their end this offseason, as Brad Stevens and the front office identified the need for structural changes to the roster. The other Williams, Grant, was the first to go, joined shortly thereafter by Marcus Smart, the longest tenured Celtic and beating heart of the team for the past near-decade. Williams’ trade completes the restructuring, strengthening the Celtics of today with an infusion of star-level talent, but at the cost of the Celtics of the past.

Williams didn’t develop into an All-NBA talent like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, nor was he as integral to the team’s culture and identity as Marcus Smart. He didn’t make an All-Star team in Boston, and the number 44 won’t be hanging in the rafters with his name on it. When you write it all out, his fingerprint on Celtics history is rather small.

That’s far from all there is, though. In a sports market with such history — and, subsequently, such lofty expectations — it’s easy to get lost in the desire for accolades. Robert Williams III may ultimately have had an incomplete career in Boston, but his time here was nonetheless memorable from the outset. He made his stamp on this era of Celtics basketball one alley-oop slam, one blocked jumper at a time, living up to a remarkable nickname in a style that only he could. Long live the Timelord.

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