Shams Charania of The Athletic released his
latest NBA trade slop drop Monday
morning, and it restated several points on the Boston Celtics'
involvement in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes. Notably, according to
Charania, Boston has not made Marcus Smart or Robert Williams III
Smart is entrenched in the Celtics franchise as its
longest-tenured player, emotional leader and reigning Defensive
Player of the Year. But the withholding of Williams also speaks to
how highly regarded he is on the roster and how critical he was to
Boston's NBA Finals run last season.
Williams broke out big time in 2021-22, averaging 10.0 points,
9.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game with a stunning 73.6% clip
from the floor. He landed on the All-Defensive Second Team and
anchored one of the best defenses in the league. A year ago this
Wednesday, Williams signed a four-year contract that could be worth
up to $54 million. He's already made that look like a massive
The 2018 first-round pick thrives in his classically-defined
archetype as a rim-protecting center, two-way rebounder and lob
finisher. Williams has already showcased elite traits in that role
— traits that, if he never improved even fractionally, would still
be among the best in the world for the next several years.
However, Williams' role also clouds viewers' visualizations of
his next steps. At age 24, and, with one healthy-ish season under
his belt, Williams still has plenty of room to grow with the
Celtics. But if he's already so good at what he does, and Boston
rarely asks him to do anything else, what is the trajectory for his
Fortunately, between Williams' additional skills and his
functional areas of improvement, he can continue to shoulder more
responsibility as a young big man.
Celtics fans have continuously marveled over Williams' passing
flashes during his first few seasons in the league. His
assist-to-usage rate has been in the top 20% among centers in each
of the past three years, per Cleaning the Glass. And, despite
receiving few touches outside of play-finishing chances, Williams
can dazzle with his vision.
When Boston tapped into Williams as a passer, they often set him
up at the top of the arc or slightly offset on the wings. It's
amazing how imposing he is from that range despite posing zero
threat as a shooter or driver. Having Williams quarterback the
offense from here also opens up opportunities for Jayson Tatum and
Jaylen Brown to move off the ball and use their strength and speed
to get open instead of ball-handling and creating.
It's almost like Tatum is running a wide receiver option route
in the above clips. In the first two plays, Jayson is slipping
screens and cutting to the basket while Williams rifles passes in
for layups. In the third clip, Tatum is using a Payton Pritchard
flare screen and hitting a three. The fourth clip is another flare
screen, but Williams and Tatum both recognize the open space, and
the former leads the superstar into a driving layup. For good
measure, the last clip is Brown faking off a similar pindown and
cutting to the basket.
With "Timelord" running the show, off-ball defenders have to key
in on Boston's dynamic duo, and it opens up easy reads for him to
make, like this one to Grant Williams:
The gripe here isn't with Williams III; rather, I wish the
Celtics would put him in these positions more often. He has a high
overall turnover rate, but rarely gives the ball away in these
situations. It places less of a load on Tatum and Brown as
self-creators and gets more players moving around the half-court in
There's also untapped intrigue with him at the high post.
According to PBP Stats, Williams III had 84 elbow touches across
the entire 2021-22 regular season. His 16.7% assist rate ranked
second among the 99 players with at least 75 elbow touches, behind
only Memphis Grizzlies big man Steven Adams. Now, some of these
touches are mere handoffs. But others are Williams connecting with
shooters on a short roll, or directing traffic out of a post
Jared Weiss of The Athletic detailed how
drifted away from post-ups as the season went on, and how
adding more back with Williams involved could make sense. Given
Williams' vision and the success that comes when players orbit
around him, I would agree.
Any individual scoring development like a mid-range jump shot
would be icing on the cake, as Trevor Hass of Celtics Blog
wrote. But head coach Ime Udoka already has untapped potential
right in front of him in the form of Williams as a passing hub.
Manifesting more touches for a tertiary option is much easier said
than done, but integrating Williams further could seriously juice a
Celtics offense that often stagnated.
Defensively, however, the onus is on Williams to improve his
The 6-foot-9-inch center is a remarkable roamer and shot-blocker
— in the highest echelon of rim-warping players across the league.
He hit his defensive stride strongly down the stretch because Udoka
and the coaching staff put him in defensive positions to be
successful. Sporting News writer Stephen Noh intricately broke down
how the Celtics kept Williams out of
the on-ball limelight whenever possible and made his job all
about rotating and swatting.
That's great, and it proved to be successful enough to get
Boston to within two games of a championship. It also required some
luck and some heavy lifting from Al Horford, who used a stretch of
good health to play some of the best switching defense we saw all
season at age 35.
Horford, now 36, can't be expected to carry the same burden
throughout another title push, and the Celtics only have one other
center in line for possible rotation minutes in Luke Kornet.
Williams will have to defend in ball-screen coverage and switch
onto guards at certain points.
Last year, it didn't go so well. Boston started out switching
1-through-5 on defense and changed that as the year went on. Who
knows if it was Williams who caused the shift, but his struggles
certainly played a part.
As shown in the clip above, Williams can't move with the
necessary lateral quickness to stop drives at the root. He has to
rely on his length to catch up when he gets beat, and while that
leads to some highlight-reel recovery blocks, it's not a fail-safe
he should want to lean on. Williams is also historically a
foul-prone perimeter player who bites on pump-fakes far too often,
though he tempered those temptations last year.
I'd claim that Williams improved in the moments he did have to
switch onto isolations later in the season. It seemed he played
those possessions more conservatively and was willing to give up
the three-ball, knowing he has the vertical pop to reach shots like
Don't expect Williams to become some unicorn-like defender who
can smother players all over the court. If Williams can at least
contain drives and keep defenders thinking about the threat of a
block, that's a win for Boston. He's got the all-world
rim-protection in his pocket already.
Williams is already a high-end starting center whose talents can
help Boston get back to the Finals. If he breezes through a heavier
passing workload and makes some progress as an on-ball defender, we
could be talking about a sub-All-Star type of center next
Robert Williams III only underscores that the Celtics, even
after reaching June, still have room for progress.