In a late December game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Boston Celtics big man Robert Williams made a spectacular play look easy.
As Williams rolled to the rim and poked a finger into the air to call for a lob, Jaylen Brown threw what appeared to be an errant pass on the wrong side of the rim. That’s not uncommon apparently: Williams chuckled on Tuesday after the Celtics’ win over the Los Angeles Clippers and said Brown is the only player on the team who throws him lobs “any type of way.”
Still, as Williams elevated to catch the pass, Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke sagged down into the paint to prevent Williams from dunking. The only problem: Clarke left his man, Marcus Smart, wide open in the corner.
All of this happened in a split second, but Williams calculated it and simply re-directed Brown’s pass to Smart, who canned the 3-pointer.
This tip pass from Robert Williams was tremendous: pic.twitter.com/QA23qEHSGJ
— Chris Grenham (@chrisgrenham) December 31, 2020
Not every player in the NBA can make that play. Few can match Williams’ unique combination of bounce and length. Few (if any) of those players can process things as quickly as Williams seems to do.
“He has an amazing feel for the game,” Jayson Tatum said last month. “When he tips it out, or rebounds he can get in a roll and know where to pass it. Rob‘s really, really good and he’s gonna help us out the more opportunities that he gets.”
On national broadcasts, Williams has started to draw attention both for his absurd highlights and for his “Timelord” nickname — a moniker administered (and recently recanted) by a segment of Celtics fans called Weird Celtics Twitter.
The highlights are spectacular, certainly.
GTFOH ROBERT WILLIAMS IS AMAZING pic.twitter.com/5Jnc4T9J6L
— Efrain Ramos (@efraincarmelo) March 3, 2021
They serve a purpose, as well: Teams are starting to respect Williams as a potential shot blocker, and defenses are pulling in to the paint to prevent him from converting lobs — Williams has the second-highest field-goal percentage of any NBA player averaging 10 minutes or more per game at 71.8 percent. The only player higher is a somewhat comparable lob threat: DeAndre Jordan, who makes 76.4 percent of his shots (almost all dunks or layups).
But Williams can do more offensively than Jordan, which is what increasingly makes defenses scramble. Here, three defenders collapse to Williams including Nuggets guard Markus Howard, who was supposed to be defending Payton Pritchard in the corner.
I just had to do a Robert Williams thread after the re-watch. He was so good. We love when the Timelord morphs into the Dimelord (TM @JamPackard). Good ball movement finished by a terrific pass from Williams to Pritchard. pic.twitter.com/lWe0BkcGEa
— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) February 17, 2021
What exactly Howard — a rookie generously listed at 5-foot-10 — hoped to accomplish if Williams chose to dunk over him is anyone’s guess, but instead Williams laced a pass over his head to Pritchard in the corner for the 3-pointer.
The variety of passes is interesting as well. Here he finds Grant Williams with an interior dish so quick, it looked like instinct (Grant Williams’ floater was a little ugly).
First up is this beautiful touch pass by Rob Williams to find Grant open under the rim pic.twitter.com/ln7a0i0bIl
— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) February 10, 2021
Williams is also adept at finding 3-point shooters when he grabs offensive rebounders, and increasingly he’s showing he can spray the ball out to shooters as a roll man. Passing on the move is difficult, particularly for a big man, but he has it in his arsenal. Expect that to be a major focus for the Celtics — collapsing defenses vulnerable.
So how can the Celtics best maximize Williams’ strengths? That’s a little unclear. Fans have called for Williams to start, but Brad Stevens said last month the Celtics plan to manage his health “so that he’s available more often than not.”
One thing to consider as Celtics fans wait impatiently for Williams to become a starter: He’s in his third year, but he has a lot less experience than many players from his draft class. Williams has only played 1,116 total minutes in his career. By way of comparison, 27 NBA players have played more than 1,116 minutes this season alone so far. Williams has a lot of time to grow, and his baseline is very encouraging.
“He’s on a great trajectory, really helping us,” Stevens said. “One of the things about Rob that sometimes does not get talked about enough is that he’s a competitor. He wants to win, he plays hard, goes after rebounds, and he’s learning how to take advantage of what he does best at both ends of the floor.”