Just days after Robert Williams became a first-time father, just six weeks after his 21st birthday, he found himself leaning on All-Star Anthony Davis as he entered Monday’s game at TD Garden.
Williams planted his feet, put his forearm in Davis’s back, and readied for the play. Davis felt Williams’s pressure, and he quickly spun and pointed in the air, Jrue Holiday flipped the ball near the basket, and Davis completed the easy dunk.
Lesson No. 1 for Robert Williams, get low on his post defense and watch for the spin.
“That was actually on me,” Williams said with a big smile. “Everybody on the bench told me that [play] was coming. They told me, ‘Watch the spin!’ I heard them yelling that [expletive].
“When he spun off me, I was like, ‘Yeah, damn, he got me. He got me.’ It was nice [play by him], but you’ve got to learn from it when you’re playing against great players like that who know how to execute on every mistake you make.”
Williams was the Celtics’ lone draft pick from 2018 and his progress has been slow because of the team’s depth. But with Al Horford, Aron Baynes, and Guerschon Yabusele all out with injuries, he became the backup to starting center Daniel Theis.
And just three days after what he said was the biggest day of his life, the birth of his daughter, Ava, Williams enjoyed the biggest day of his professional career. He finished with 7 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks against Davis and the Pelicans in the Celtics’ 113-100 win.
Playing against Davis is like a freshman taking calculus. Davis, an MVP candidate, scored 41 points on 17-for-34 shooting. He showed Williams his array of moves in the post, his teardrop layups, baby looks, fadeaways, and midrange jumpers. It left Williams’s head spinning at times, but he won a couple of battles, blocking two Davis shots.
“Yeah, I was surprised [at the first block],” Davis said. “I thought he was going to go for the pump fake, and he didn’t. I just tried to shoot over. He’s good. He’s talented. A good defensive player. He got another one at the other end late in the second half. I just tried to change it up a little bit, but I was surprised he got the first one.”
The Celtics have sought a legitimate rim protector since the end of the Kevin Garnett era. With more seasoning, Williams has the ability to affect shots and become a defensive force. His development will take time.
But the consensus among his teammates and coaches is that the talent is there, but it’s going to take time and many, many lessons similar to the ones he learned from Davis.
“Theis and Robert were basically going to have to play [Davis] one-on-one because we didn’t want to double [Davis],” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “When you’re shooting jumpers and Robert’s in the vicinity, you feel him. When you’re shooting around the rim and he’s in the vicinity, you feel him.
“I think he can improve a lot, but I thought he did a really good job. Offensively he was active, got some hands on some offensive rebounds, made a couple tip-ins, kicked it out. I thought he was good.”
Williams was back in Texas this weekend to watch Ava’s birth. It’s something he’s anticipated for months, as he tried to digest being a younger father as well as a neophyte NBA player.
When he told his parents he was going to be a father, his mother, Tondra, was excited.
“She loves kids,” the Celtics rookie said.
His father, Robert Jr., however, offered stern advice.
“My dad took a little time for him to accept it,” Robert III said. “But he’s behind me through whatever. He just told me I just got to step up, simple words, you know you gotta step up now.”
And that has nothing to do with basketball.
Robert Jr. instructed his son to step up as a father, despite the obligations of the NBA. Fatherhood is normal for younger NBA players. Second-year forward Jayson Tatum just celebrated the first birthday of his son, Jayson Jr., last week. Tatum is 20 years old.
So Williams will have to juggle the responsibility of fatherhood and becoming a productive, consistent, and reliable NBA player with no room for excuses. Williams asked some teammates about the impact of fatherhood on their careers.
“They just stressed [kids] grow up fast,” Williams said. “So I’m just trying to make sure I’m seeing her a lot, raising her the best I can.”
Williams’s maturity and reliability were questioned early in his Celtics tenure when he missed a conference call after his draft and then missed a plane and was absent for his first summer league practice, earning him the nickname “Time Lord.” Williams appeared to get the message and has been a model rookie and learning sponge, especially with Horford, who seemed to get a kick out of Williams making plays Monday, the veteran cheering vigorously from the bench.
Williams is becoming a fan favorite and his work ethic is turning him into an organizational favorite. And now, he said, fatherhood has provided him even more motivation to chase greatness.
“It’s a blessing. I was ready to see her, what she looked like, what she acted like. One of the best things to happen to me,” he said. “It’s 100 percent motivation, 100 percent motivation when you’re thinking about your seed in the back of your mind; it’s a different type of energy.”