ORLANDO, Fla. — Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Robert Williams is on this Celtics roster, and that he’s healthy and he’s improving.
It’s been a difficult first two years for the Celtics’ former first-round pick, who has dealt with injuries and the normal steep learning curve, taking him out of the regular playing rotation even though he has shown potential.
Williams was on his way to making an impact this season with the second unit until he missed 37 games with a hip edema and finally returned only to have the season suspended for four months.
So Williams could be that unexpected weapon who could provide a defensive presence and run the floor in the Celtics’ up-tempo offense. The organization is crossing its fingers that Williams is completely healthy and ready to contribute. If anything, he’s six fouls to use against opposing big men such as Joel Embiid.
The best-case scenario is he becomes the shot-blocking presence the Celtics projected two years ago. The opportunity is there. The Celtics are solid at center with Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis but not spectacular. Williams brings a potential the aforementioned two just don’t have and because of his injuries and lack of playing time, may not even make the opposing team’s scouting reports.
The Celtics hope that’s the case, at least.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Williams has played well since the team returned to workouts.
“I went back home and got some good work in,” Williams said of his Vivian, La., home. “Just being around people that motivated people, staying at home, staying around people who helped me give, so I feel good.”
We’ve heard this before. Williams was completely healthy during training camp after arriving in top shape and was one of the most improved players on the floor. The team had high hopes he would command considerable minutes at center. He had his moments, including a career-high six-block game in a win at San Antonio, but he experienced pain during a Dec. 6 home win against the Denver Nuggets and the hip injury was diagnosed.
There are going to be little-known or lighter-regarded players who will respond favorably under these new conditions — no fans, no home-court advantage, playing in a bubble. The Celtics hope that Williams becomes an X-factor that can give them a boost as the season returns.
Stevens has established his second unit but that doesn’t mean players such as Williams, Carsen Edwards, and Romeo Langford can’t earn minutes with their practice performances. The Celtics have prided themselves this season on their depth and ability to use players 1 through 15 in key moments and get production.
Williams, who looks in good shape, has an opportunity to make a difference defensively. While Theis is a strong defender and solid pick-and-pop player while Kanter is a rebounding menace, neither has Williams’s athleticism or shot-blocking ability.
The only obstacles preventing Williams from becoming more of an option is health and working on the other skills of his game such as mid-range shooting and passing off the pick-and-roll.
The good news is health is not an issue now.
“I feel like I was laboring a little bit, [when the season was suspended],” he said. “I definitely feel like this time off helped me get my body back right.”
Williams is popular with his teammates. They l are wishing good fortune for Williams after a couple of years of misfortune. The Time Lord moniker, earned when he missed his flight for his introductory press conference and then was late to a summer league practice, is rather old and tired now.
He wants to make a fresh impression with his play, with his ability to impact a game with his ability to run the floor and leap higher than most NBA players. Williams has done everything asked in practice, and showed the willingness to work hard to get to that next level.
The pandemic allowed Williams to spend time with his daughter Ava, and like many of his teammates, he laments leaving his 2-year-old child for three months. But the payoff for this sequestering could be a championship. And if Williams can play to his potential, block shots and alter others, leap high for alley-oops from Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics will be a bigger threat to win the East.
Meanwhile, the entire league was in a celebratory mood after the NBA revealed that no players tested positive out of 346 tested for COVID-19 in the last week, meaning life in the bubble is working for now.
“It makes me optimistic that we’re playing basketball,” Stevens said. “Having something where you’re together, doing something that you love to do is really important. That’s where my greatest source of optimism comes. I think the most encouraging thing has been the play of our second unit, would be what I’m really excited about, I feel like guys have made the right strides hopefully to be more impactful.”