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How high can Robert Williams III ascend?

What’s the ceiling for the Celtics’ high-flying big man?

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NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics
Robert Williams III, Boston Celtics
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, The Athletic conducted a poll, asking Celtics fans their thoughts on several storylines surrounding the team, including whether or not the fanbase believed that Robert Williams III could become an All-Star.

Just 33.2% of voters had faith in The Time Lord, while another 51.7% felt that his offense was either too limited or that he wouldn’t improve his game enough to ascend to that level.

Is it too much to ask for Williams to find his way onto the All-Star team? Maybe, but it might not be because of his lack of talent, but more so because of the stars in his way. The frontcourt in the Eastern Conference is pretty loaded at the moment, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, and Bam Adebayo all eclipsing Rob for an All-Star spot — just to name a few.

Just because he may not earn an All-Star nod, doesn’t mean that Williams is a bad player by any means. He’s actually quite important to Boston’s success. When he was largely available in the 2021-22 season, the Cs were one of the most unstoppable teams in the league and it wasn’t a coincidence. He was a key part of the Celtics starting lineup, which held a defensive rating of 94.2 in 443 total minutes together. Rob’s excellence in his roamer role on defense caused plenty of problems for opposing teams and earned him a spot on the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team.

So far in his five-year pro career, Williams’ ceiling has been just that — second-team All-Defense. Last year, he missed a large chunk of the season as he recovered from knee surgery and didn’t quite have the same flare.

My question is, “can he ascend higher?” It sure feels like he can because of how greatly he can impact the game.

Plus, we’ve seen footage this summer of Williams working on his jump shot — something Celtics fans have gotten a small taste for and are clamoring for more of.

I personally have always thought his jumper looked pretty clean, so it’ll be interesting to see what it can do for him and the Celtics offensively. At the very least, it’ll keep defenses honest when he’s spotted up on the baseline, creating space for whoever it may be driving the ball to the cup.

Rob’s desire to improve his reliability outside of the paint is pretty admirable and it sets him apart from some of his top comparisons on Basketball Reference.

All of the comps are determined by “similarity scores,” which Basketball Reference defines as:

“It attempts to find players whose careers were similar in terms of quality and shape. By shape, I mean things like: How many years did he play? How good were his best years compared to his worst years? Did he have a few great years and then several mediocre years, or did he have many good-but-not-great years?”

Another important item to note is that players are only compared to other players who played a comparable position. In other words, guards are compared to guards and guard-forwards; forwards are compared to forwards and forward-centers; and centers are compared to centers and center-forwards. This is not always perfect, but it works well enough absent more precise positional designations.”

So, it doesn’t mean Rob is exactly like those that the site determines him to be similar to, but there’s something there for sure. Amongst the top five in similarity to Boston’s No. 44 are Hassan Whiteside, Tyson Chandler, and Clint Capela — none of which ever developed much of a jumper.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Boston Celtics
Robert Williams, Boston Celtics. Hassan Whiteside, Utah Jazz.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Hassan Whiteside has to be the worst-case comparison for Robert Williams

Whiteside burst onto the NBA scene in the 2014-15 season, when he joined the Miami Heat. He did have a previous stint with the Sacramento Kings, but it ended with him heading overseas to play for a few years, after not sticking in the Kings’ rotation.

The seven-footer had a blistering ascension to stardom during his time in Miami. He posted a triple-double with 14 points, 13 rebounds, and 13 blocks (!!) against the Chicago Bulls in January of 2015. The game was in primetime on ABC and Whiteside went viral when he cited his desire to improve his NBA 2K rating as the reason for his strong display.

Whiteside’s play continued to show up well in the stat sheet for the next few seasons. He was named to the All-Defensive Second Team in the 2015-16 season, where he also led the league in blocked shots — a feat he accomplished again in the 2019-20 season. He followed up his All-Defensive season by leading the NBA in total rebounds in 2016-17.

As the years continued to pass, Whiteside’s play began to fall off, with blocks helping to erase his defensive lapses — kind of. Miami eventually offloaded the big man to the Portland Trail Blazers in the four-team deal that landed Jimmy Butler with the Heat in 2019.

Since leaving the Heat, his flaws began to become more and more prominent, eventually leading him to be teamless for the entire 2022-23 season.

The reason why becoming Whiteside would be the worst case scenario for Williams is because of his “fake” defensive output — not to mention that he’s probably already passed him in terms of effectiveness. Of course, the stats are real, but the effort and impact just were not.

Williams’ impact on the defensive end is partly because of his shot-blocking ability, but also because of his increased sense of the game. There’s a reason why he couldn’t find his way into the rotation for his first few seasons in Boston. He was jumpy, fell for pump fakes regularly, and couldn’t be trusted down low, despite his athleticism.

His mental growth is what’s helped him ascend above Whiteside’s level.

Atlanta Hawks Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden
Robert Williams, Boston Celtics. Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks.
Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Clint Capela is solid, but not quite the ceiling for Robert Williams

Controlling the glass and finishing close to the basket have been staples of Capela’s game. He was able to take advantage of playing alongside James Harden with the Houston Rockets early on in his career, before being traded to the Atlanta Hawks in 2020. Once he joined the Hawks, Capela pieced together what has been the best campaign of his career so far. He averaged 15.2 points and a league-best 14.3 rebounds per game that season and helped the Hawks make a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Since then, he’s still been able to average a double-double but has regressed ever so slightly at just 28 years old and Atlanta hasn’t been able to recapture the magic of that 2021 playoff run.

Celtics fans got a real close look at Capela last spring when Boston bounced the Hawks in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs. Part of the reason why the series went as long as it did was because of the Swiss big man’s work on the glass.

He was a colossal pain for the Cs, as he battled alongside Onyeka Okungwu to secure plenty of second chances for the Hawks. Capela averaged 2.5 offensive rebounds per game against the Celtics in that series.

The offensive glass has become a large part of Time Lord’s game, ever since he’s gotten a larger role in Boston’s rotation. He ripped down about 3.9 per game in 2021-22, then followed that with another 3.0 per contest last year.

Right now, the biggest difference between the two has to be Williams’ mobility. He’s shown a tremendous ability to stick with smaller players on the perimeter, making him a great fit with Boston’s switch-everything defense. Meanwhile, the Celtics consistently targeted Capela in that first-round matchup. He’s just not as quick and it makes him more limited defensively.

With all of that being said, the Hawks big man has to be one of the most comparable players to Boston’s high-flying center, though it does feel as if Williams has the edge over him.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks - Game Five
Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks.

It’d be pretty sweet if Robert Williams could make a DPOY impact like Tyson Chandler

Chandler has to be towards the top in terms of talent when it comes to Basketball Reference’s comps for Williams. He had a lengthy 19-year NBA career and played for a handful of teams along the way.

Most notably, Chandler was part of the Dallas Mavericks’ 2011 championship run. While playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki, he helped control the paint for Dallas, protecting the rim and hustling after loose balls.

In the following season, he joined the New York Knicks and won the Defensive Player of the Year award. That Knicks team wasn’t anything special. They lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Heatles in a sweep.

The next year, the Knicks rose up to second in the Eastern Conference and Chandler earned his one and only All-Star selection.

His game was very similar to what Celtics fans see from Williams on a nightly basis. If you go and watch his career highlights, you’ll notice a ton of similarities between the two — lots of high-flying finishes in the pick-and-roll on offense and stout effort on the defensive end to keep the paint on lock.

To be fair to Rob, he very well could’ve stolen Marcus Smart’s 2022 Defensive Player of the Year win, had he not torn his meniscus towards the end of the season.

There’s no reason that — when healthy — Williams can’t make a championship-level impact for the Celtics, much like Chandler did for Dallas in 2011.

Portland Trail Blazers v Dallas Mavericks - Game One
Marcus Camby, Portland Trail Blazers.
Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Bonus: Robert Williams with a jumper might be a more athletic Marcus Camby

Shout-out to CelticsBlog’s Bill Sy for this comp. Camby — much like Chandler — had a lengthy pro career and was able to have an impact on multiple teams. Along the way, he earned himself four All-Defensive selections and won the 2006-07 Defensive Player of the Year award thanks to his elite shot-blocking ability.

The UMass alumni averaged a staggering 2.4 blocks per game for his career, which is pretty impressive considering how long he played for.

On top of his presence in the paint, Camby offered his teams a bit more spacing than the other comparisons listed here. He wasn’t elite by any means, but I’m not sure Rob will be either. Camby knocked down roughly 34-35% of his mid-range attempts throughout his NBA tenure.

Of course, today’s NBA is a bit different and it’s tough to visualize the Celtics letting Williams take jumpers if he’s only knocking them down at that clip. To be honest, I feel if he was taking jump shots throughout these first few seasons, they’d probably be falling at about the same rate.

Hopefully, this work he’s putting in over the summer allows him to convert at a percentage closer to 45-50% on those attempts.

So, what’s the ceiling for Robert Williams?

Of the players listed here, it’s feasible that he could ascend to the level of Camby. It wouldn’t be shocking if Williams earned a DPOY down the road here, as well as a few more All-NBA shouts.

Health is the biggest factor for him, as it always has been. The 2021-22 campaign was the best sample of how much Williams’ presence can be felt when he’s able to be on the court consistently. After a relatively healthy second half of the season in 2022-23, let’s hope that we see the Time Lord out there flying on a consistent basis.

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