It’s year three for Robert Williams and the Celtics still don’t know fully what they have in their 2018 first-round pick, who was projected to be the rim protector they have sought for years.
Williams has spent the past two years dealing with injuries but made strides for the Celtics in the NBA bubble, making a difference in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Toronto Raptors. But when it came down to containing Miami’s skilled big man Bam Adebayo in the conference finals, coach Brad Stevens opted mostly for Daniel Theis, who lost that matchup badly, which ended up being the difference in the series.
Since the season ended the Celtics have moved centers Enes Kanter and Vincent Poirier and added Cleveland veteran Tristan Thompson, making the center position a potential three-man rotation. But where does Williams fit? With Thompson out indefinitely with a hamstring injury, will Williams start opening night against the Milwaukee Bucks? Or will he have to spend another year as an occasional option for when the Celtics need athleticism or a shot blocker.
Those are questions yet to be answered. But, in the first week of training camp, Williams said he’s making progress and Stevens agrees. Still, Celtics faithful won’t really know until the games begin.
“I honestly feel like I’ll make a great jump this year for myself and also for my team and I feel like I’m around great guys to do that, too,” Williams said. “Bringing in Tristan, someone I can learn from easily, and every day learning stuff from Theis, I feel like they put me in a great position, too.”
Williams played in all seven games of the Toronto series, averaging 5.4 points and 4.9 rebounds. Yet, in next series against the Heat, Williams did not play in three of the six games, including the pivotal Game 2 when Adebayo dominated the third quarter as the Heat rallied for a victory.
The Celtics want Williams to be steadier defensively, in the right places instead of taking chances on weakside blocks and then getting beat for layups. He was more reliable in the bubble, but it would have been interesting to find out whether he could have had an impact in the Miami series.
Adebayo signed a maximum extension last month, partly because of his performance in the bubble. Williams was supportive of his friend, but feels he can make a similar impact.
“Bam that’s a good friend of mine, I was just telling him to go get his money. It’s out there and it’s possible and he’s making a living off of quick rolling to the rim and being a defensive player,” Williams said. “Obviously I feel like I can do the same things, but it’s all love from me to Bam.”
Williams showed flashes of making an impact in the bubble but when it came down to stopping Adebayo and perhaps making a difference in the series, the Celtics didn’t trust him quite yet.
Of course, injuries have also prevented Williams from getting a full opportunity. He missed most of his rookie season with knee and back issues and also had stints in the G-League. Last season Williams missed a few months with a hip edema but was able to return healthy to the NBA bubble.
“Year one it was more circumstance with we had so many guys on that team that were going to play for sure that it was a really tough situation for anybody that was at the bottom end of the roster,” Stevens said. “I thought he worked really hard and last year he started off great. Obviously there were 40 or 50 games where he wasn’t available due to injury. He really played well in the playoffs, especially in the Toronto series. I think he’s backed that up with his first couple of days of practice.
“I’m very encouraged. I always tell the story about Rob, when Rob first got here, he had great people to learn from and the next year when we were getting ready for summer league, Kara Lawson came up to me and said, ‘Man I wish everybody talked like Rob.’ ”
Williams is serving as a mentor to rookies Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard but also still learning how to be more consistent and versatile — and playing time awaits if he does.
“As far as leading the rookies and leading the other guys, I learn from them, too,” he said. “The older guys push me to be more vocal, too, let me know they have trust in me. Even starting in training camp with [Thompson] being out, me being vocal, me being the second big. It’s obviously helping me. When the season starts and I get the rotation minutes I think it will be a big jump for me.”
Stevens won’t promise anything but he confirms Williams has been impressive in practice and is prepared for a bigger role.
“Again, he’s always improved whether he’s playing or not,” Stevens said. “That’s one of the things that’s continued to give him a chance to make great strides. We’ve had good players there. Theis had a good year. Kanter was a really good player in certain matchups. When you’re playing that one position, there’s a little bit less time to go around off it. It’s a credit to him that he’s improved regardless of circumstance. I think he’ll build off of that this year.
“But we’ve got good players this year. We’ll see how all that shakes out.”