Midway through the second quarter of the Celtics’ loss to the Suns on Wednesday, Phoenix’s Josh Jackson carved into the lane and tossed up a shot that was promptly swatted away by rookie Robert Williams. Suns guard T.J. Warren chased down the loose ball and immediately drove toward the rim, but he had to loft his runner high over the outstretched right arm of Williams, and it thudded off the backboard and off the rim.
Later in the game, Williams stepped out to help after Suns sharpshooter Devin Booker used a screen to create space, and then used his long right arm to deflect Booker’s offering from beyond the 3-point arc.
Williams is now averaging 6.4 blocks per 36 minutes, the top mark in the league among those who have played at least 100 minutes this season. The next closest players on the list, Miami’s Hassan Whiteside and the Lakers’ JaVale McGee, are averaging just 3.9.
Williams is also averaging 1.6 blocks per game despite averaging just 8.8 minutes. To put that figure in perspective, Kevin McHale is the franchise’s career leader in blocks per game, at 1.7. Blocked shots were not an officially recorded stat until the 1973-74 season. Otherwise, Bill Russell certainly would have had his say.
The Celtics have not had a shot-blocking paint prowler like Williams under Brad Stevens and his unique talents have been on display more frequently recently as the team’s other big men have dealt with injuries.
And after center Aron Baynes broke a bone in his left hand on Wednesday, it became clear that Williams could be in line for important opportunities in the coming weeks, too. He finished the Phoenix game with 8 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 blocks, and afterward he was asked whether he was ready for more with Baynes out.
“Of course,” Williams said. “It’s my job.”
The Celtics announced Thursday that Baynes underwent successful surgery, performed at New England Baptist Hospital by Dr. Hervey Kimball, to repair a fracture of his left fourth metacarpal. Baynes is expected to return to play in 4-6 weeks.
That is certainly a manageable time period for the Celtics, and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said the team has no plans to add a big man. Boston does not even have an open roster spot right now.
Al Horford has missed the last six games due to pain in his left knee, and he has been ruled out of Friday’s game against the Bucks. But Ainge said that Horford would probably “be fighting through it” if the Celtics were currently in the playoffs. Since they are not, they are trying to help him fully recover for the stretch run.
Ainge said that Marcus Morris, who missed Wednesday’s game with left knee pain, is planning to play against Milwaukee, and that Guerschon Yabusele is making progress as he recovers from a sprained ankle and could return in a few days, too.
With those reinforcements coming, along with the presence of a now-healthy Daniel Theis, there is no need for the Celtics to act hastily. But Williams’s seemingly rapid development can only help.
“He’s 21 years old, so we expect a lot out of Rob, but also there’s a learning curve for him,” Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving said. “He does a lot of great things already, so I think the sky’s the limit for his potential and what he brings to our team. Obviously getting more repetitions at this point, creating a lot of opportunities for us at the rim as well as getting blocks and protecting the paint.”
Williams’s shot-blocking will get him onto highlight films and will get TD Garden buzzing, but there have been times when he chases those opportunities a bit too aggressively and ends up out of position.
Williams acknowledged that he is working on that, but Irving also added that his teammates must be there to assist him in these situations.
“Us as guards, when we’re missing guys we have to help Rob rebound as well,” he said. “He’s contesting, trying to go for every block, and our weak side and crashing and helping him out is just as important as him going for the rebound, so that’s part of being on a team. We all have to cover for each other.”
Williams also crafts some of the Celtics’ most dazzling offensive highlights by soaring in for majestic alley-oop dunks. If the others lob the ball anywhere around him, he is often capable of getting to it and dunking it before any defender can disrupt him.
But his overall offensive skills remain crude, and it is obvious that he is not yet comfortable operating near the basket in more complex situations.
“I thought that he had some opportunities on offense that he’ll make plays with when he gets a little more used to the game and used to playing with those other guys,” Stevens said. “They were not paying a whole lot of attention to him on the perimeter and in the seams and those are plays that he can make on that end of the floor.”
At the start of this season, it was widely believed that Williams would spend much of the year with the Maine Red Claws because there would simply not be opportunities for him to play on this deep Celtics team. But injuries created an opening, and Williams has shown that he is capable of stepping into important situations, so the next few weeks should have value for both him and the Celtics, both now and moving forward.