Celtics

What Robert Williams’s impending return means for the Celtics

The versatility he brings to Boston’s already-good frontcourt creates a world of options and flexibility for Brad Stevens.

Celtics center Robert Williams III will share time in the frontcourt with starter Daniel Theis, as well as Enes Kanter. AP

COMMENTARY

Boston Celtics center Robert Williams hasn’t played since Dec. 6. A left hip edema has restricted him for the last two months, but Sunday’s pregame workout in Oklahoma City yielded positive results.

Williams worked with assistant coach Jerome Allen prior to the Celtics’ 112-111 win over the Thunder, leading the 22-year-old to storm into the locker room screaming with excitement, according to The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach. It was his first unrestricted workout since the injury, meaning Boston’s frontcourt reinforcements are right around the corner.

Before the injury, Williams was averaging 3.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks on 67.3 percent shooting in 32 games (9.9/11.7/2.8 per-36 minutes). Williams’s rim-running, athletic ways proved to be very useful for the Celtics before he was sidelined, and they likely will again alongside Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter.

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Boston’s frontcourt has been more effective than expected, and much of that is thanks to Theis’s impressive leap forward this season and Kanter exceeding low defensive expectations. But Williams will bring some versatility and pure shot-blocking to the lineup, something many fans wanted the Celtics to go out and trade for just last week.

Having a consistent lob threat, specifically in pick-and-roll sets, is something Boston’s ball-handlers will benefit from.

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This possession from Oct. 26 vs. the New York Knicks is a prime example. Gordon Hayward is the primary pick-and-roll ball-handler here and attracts both Allonzo Trier and Marcus Morris. Williams moves parallel to Hayward through the paint, which eventually results in the ball being tossed toward the rim. Hayward, or whichever ball-handler is working with Williams, is able to trust that he’ll go up and get it.

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Even at a much faster pace, Williams is able to set a high-ball screen for Kemba Walker, but still get to the rim in time for the lob. Except for a brief hesitation at the 3-point line, Walker doesn’t break stride. It’s a nice benefit for Boston’s ball-handlers that they don’t necessarily have to slow down to wait for Williams. His length is a major reason for that.

Theis has done a great job as the roll man for Boston this year, but he’s not nearly as explosive as Williams. Having the 6-foot-8 center take some minutes will give the Celtics some half-court flexibility they haven’t had in a few months.

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Williams’s footwork has improved immensely over the last year, allowing him to execute quick slips just as he does here against the Milwaukee Bucks. His athleticism allows him to take off and prevent Pat Connaughton’s help defense from stopping his attack at the rim. Williams receives Walker’s pass from the perimeter just inside the free-throw line and doesn’t have to take a single dribble. Theis and Kanter don’t have that kind of explosion.

His return on the defensive end arguably is more important for Boston, specifically when it comes to matching up against bigger opponents and teams that rely heavily on their frontcourt. Williams’s last game against the Denver Nuggets serves as a good example.

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In Boston’s 13-point win, Nikola Jokic finished with 30 points and 10 rebounds, causing problems for the Celtics in all 30 minutes he was on the floor. The Serbian center was primarily guarded by Theis and Kanter. Theis is mobile but a bit undersized against a 7-footer like Jokic, while Kanter’s defensive issues tend to rear their head in matchups like this. Both rang true, as Jokic scored 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting against the two bigs over 23.5 partial possessions, per the NBA’s matchup data. But Boston was able to get some relief with Williams coming off the bench.

Williams played just under 13 minutes, but held Jokic to zero points on 4.3 partial possessions, forcing him into his lone turnover of the night. Even though Jokic finished with 30 points in an overall solid performance, Williams was briefly able to slow him down, something Boston took advantage of in the win.

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It wasn’t all that noticeable from the box score, but Williams was very productive in the win against a good Western Conference opponent. Yes, he played just 12:34, but his game-best defensive rating of 63 was crucial off the bench.

His help defense, especially against bigger opponents, is extremely beneficial for Boston as well.

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Williams does a nice job of disrupting a potential passing lane from Ben Simmons to Al Horford early in the drive. When Simmons turns to go up with his right over Marcus Smart, Williams immediately slides over to provide rim protection.

Again, Theis is sporting a career-high average in blocks which has helped the Celtics immensely, but Williams’s length provides another level of interior help defense.

The peak of what Williams can provide this Celtics team came against the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 9. In 22 minutes, he had 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 blocks on a perfect 5-of-5 clip from the field. The versatility he brings to Boston’s already-good frontcourt creates a world of options and flexibility for Brad Stevens, something he hasn’t had a ton of thanks to an unfortunate stream of injuries.

Shortly after the All-Star break, the Celtics will receive a rim-running shot blocker, and that added depth only bodes well for the remainder of Boston’s season.

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