The numbers from Grant Williams’s college career at Tennessee didn’t give much indication that he would be an elite 3-point shooter in the NBA.
Over three seasons with the Volunteers, Williams attempted 103 3-pointers and made 30. He made his mark instead as a player who could think the game, make plays with the ball in his hands, pose a threat in transition, and cause problems around the rim, either by jab-stepping and corkscrewing around defenders or jumping over them if need be.
The draft experts didn’t see him as a shooter before the Celtics drafted him at No. 22 overall in 2019. His NBADraft.net profile described him as “capable.”
But Brad Stevens, the Celtics coach at the time and now the president of basketball operations, saw plenty of pluses in Williams’s game. A sturdily built shooting form was one of them.
“He’s a versatile player who can shoot the ball,” Stevens said in 2019. “Didn’t shoot it as much from 3. They didn’t need him to do that. But his shot looks good and we think that’ll be a pretty easy transition for him.”
The vote of confidence from Stevens was important.
“I was super, super excited just because he trusted me with that,” Williams said.
Williams got the sense that he could shoot at the NBA level when he showed up at predraft workouts and had the chance to measure himself against his peers.
“I had a good feeling about it because I had done it in the past,” he said. “It just wasn’t necessarily my role in college.
“So I came into the workouts, I shot it way better than teams expected. That’s when I felt like I was even more confident, comparing it to guys around me. It was like, ‘If these guys are considered shooters, and I’m making a mark, then I feel pretty confident.’ ”
That confidence didn’t make the transition any easier, though. At the draft combine, Williams missed all seven of his 3-point attempts. But with the Celtics, he was thrown into the rotation almost immediately as a rookie and given the green light to shoot by Stevens.
The NBA start couldn’t have gone worse. Over the first 20 games of his career, Williams missed 25 straight from behind the arc. No player in NBA history had ever gone through such an ugly 3-point shooting stretch to start a career.
But Stevens’s faith in Williams never wavered. Because of that, Williams’s confidence was never shaken. And even though teammates made jokes, they never told him to stop shooting.
Eventually, shots started falling. Williams finished his rookie season 24 of 96 on 3-pointers. He shot 33.8 percent over his last 49 games.
To stick in the league, Williams realized the two nonnegotiables were committing to defense and playing a more wing-oriented game — which meant becoming a shooting threat.
“It’s where the league was shifting,” Williams said. “I knew it was something I had to develop into my game and make a vital part, just playing more wing-oriented basketball in general.”
Fast-forward: Williams has earned his stripes as a shooter. He shot 37.2 percent on 3-pointers in his second season in the league, 41.1 percent in the third, and is at 40.9 percent this season, going into Monday’s game in Orlando.
“I just got the reps up,” Williams said. “The mechanics of the shot were never poor. So for me, that whole summer was just about making sure I took the shots and I was confident when I’m taking them.
“Normally when you’re so used to not shooting them, you have to change your mind to understand that this is a good shot, not a bad shot. So if a shot is open, even though you didn’t take it in the past, this is something you have to take in the future.”
What Stevens saw in Williams four years ago is much easier to see now. The Celtics already had two of the league’s most talented young wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and it was imperative to surround them with versatile, high-IQ players who could defend multiple positions, make the right decisions with the ball, and shoot.
Taking Williams in the 2019 draft was far from a gamble or a hunch; it was an investment informed by the knowledge of where the league had been heading for the past decade.
The roster the Celtics have been putting together over the past six years has been built to become one of the most prolific and efficient 3-point shooting ones in NBA history. The Celtics are averaging 41.8 3-point attempts per game this season, easily a franchise-record pace yet still second in the league behind the Warriors (43.6).
In their Finals rematch last Thursday at TD Garden, the Celtics and Warriors combined to take 93 3-pointers (41 for Boston, 52 for Golden State). That number would have been eye-popping in the past, but this season teams have combined for at least 90 in 135 games.
“The league is definitely trending [to where] you’ve got to be able to shoot the ball,” Brown said. “More and more threes. It’s a higher efficiency, so more and more teams are encouraging guys to shoot more and more threes. That’s just how the name of the game is.”
Last season marked the first time the Celtics cracked 3,000 3-point attempts as a team, and they will fly past that number this season. They are on pace to take more than 3,400 3-pointers, which would be the third most in league history behind the Rockets in 2017-18 (3,470) and 2018-19 (3,721).
When the Rockets were at the peak of their 3-point heaving, the response was mostly groans about their style of play. But no one bats an eyelash at the Celtics’ shooting — unless they lose. And right now, they have the best record in the NBA.
These Celtics are an evolution of what the Rockets and Warriors were doing five years ago. Looking back, Celtics veteran Al Horford didn’t expect that evolution to happen so rapidly.
“Honestly, I did not,” Horford said. “You would watch Houston a little bit and you’d see them just taking shots and you’re like, ‘Man, all they do is take threes!’ But I did not see it progressing this quickly. It’s every team that’s doing it and that’s the way we’re playing basketball now.”
In Houston’s case, James Harden was the fulcrum. In 2018-19, Harden contributed 1,028 attempts to the record total.
The Celtics’ approach is more egalitarian. The lion’s share of the shots go to Brown (310) and Tatum (416), but the Celtics have given almost everyone on the floor the green light. Eight players have already taken at least 150. No other team has more than six.
Filling the floor with shooting threats creates options and outlets for playmakers like Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart, and Malcom Brogdon, who draw defenders while driving to the rim. Through Jan. 17, the Celtics had made 700 3-pointers, and 392 came off passes from Tatum, Brown, Smart, or Brogdon.
“It works in our favor,” Brown said. “Because we shoot the ball at every position, we shoot it well at every position. And that’s a luxury to have a team that has been constructed like that. Obviously you’ve got guys that can get to the basket, and that just opens the game up when you’ve got shooting around you.”
Interim coach Joe Mazzulla wasn’t being snarky when he said, “I love threes, I like math.”
In the most straightforward fashion, he made clear his team’s intentions on offense. The 3-pointers are the goal not just for the sake of shooting them, but because they’re the byproduct of an offense that executes well enough to repeatedly generate them.
“I think you build more of a culture of spacing and execution and naturally the game will find the best possible shot,” Mazzulla said. “I think because of our spacing and our execution — and most defenses in the league are trying to protect the rim and take the rim away — if you have proper spacing and execution, you’re going to get a great shot.
“Those happen to be open threes the majority of the time, and we have a team of skilled guys who can knock down shots at their best.”
Williams is an example. As of Sunday, he was 70 of 171 on 3-pointers this season. He was 52 of 129 (40.3 percent) off the catch and 13 for 30 on pull-ups (43.3 percent). He has turned himself into the Celtics’ corner specialist, knocking down a team-high 35 of 76 from the corners.
To get to this point, so many nuances mattered and, over time, became muscle memory: Making his footwork automatic no matter where he was on the floor, gauging closeouts and spacing, being able to run to a spot at full speed and stop to get set instead of catching on the move, and knocking down the shot.
“That was the biggest difficulty because you’re so used to playing in unorthodox situations where you have the ball in your hands, you’re dribbling, driving, fading,” Williams said. “You’re doing things that aren’t necessarily just spot-shooting, so you have to practice that.
“And even when you do spot-shooting, sometimes you get lazy. You start standing up, doing things of that nature. So, for me, it was just a matter of maintaining the readiness of the shot.”
Williams hit a 10-game dry spell at the start of this month, missing 26 of 34 from deep, but snapped out of it Saturday with a 4-for-6 night in Toronto. He learned as a rookie that the way this team was built, shooters shoot.
“Every shooter goes through spells where they go from shooting 40 percent to shooting 28-30 and you just find your shot again,” Williams said. “You go back to the work you did that got you there in the first place. You always know it’s going to turn back around.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.