LAS VEGAS — Last Saturday, when the NBA Summer League still felt new and fresh and the 10-day event had yet to leave plenty of those associated with it bleary-eyed, as it tends to do, the Celtics took the court for their first game here.
It was a chance for Boston to unveil its new draft picks, and also provide a glimpse of how its returning players had changed since they were last seen on a basketball court. And there was Robert Williams, the 6-foot-10-inch center with pogo sticks for legs, spotting up for an 18-foot jumper.
The ball thudded off the rim.
Later, Williams caught a pass in a similar spot, early in the shot clock, and fired up another shot that never really had a chance. Thud.
As a rookie last season, Williams attempted just one shot beyond 16 feet. Perhaps the Celtics were focused on having him use this offseason to extend his range and become more of a perimeter threat, following the lead of so many other big men throughout the league.
But then the game ended, and coach Scott Morrison, when asked about Williams’s evolution as a passer, took the opportunity to criticize him for those two long jump shots. That is not what the Celtics want from him, he emphasized, at least not yet.
Nevertheless, Williams remains a work in progress, and summer league is the perfect time to tinker and tweak and explain why firing 18-footers isn’t the best idea. So it became a teaching moment.
“I was glad he took those shots,” assistant coach Jerome Allen said Thursday night. “They’re not what we’re trying to get at that point in the shot clock, but it got me to point out to him that these are not the times to settle. You’ve got to make the right pass, or turn and back down your guy, or try to be aggressive in the post, as opposed to just settling for what they’re giving you.”
Said Williams: “I wanted to try and see if I could knock some of those down. But I feel like some of those I was settling. My coaches talked to me after about attacking more and engaging more into a defender’s body rather than settling. So it’s something I want to work on.”
Over his next two games, Williams did not fire up any long jumpers that defenses were daring him to take. But he dominated in ways he is currently more prepared to dominate.
In the Celtics’ 113-87 win over the Grizzlies on Thursday night, Williams had his finest game in a Celtics uniform, tallying 16 points, 16 rebounds, and 4 assists. In his three games here, he is averaging 11.7 points, 9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.7 blocks in just 19.7 minutes per contest.
Last year at this time, Williams was a raw prospect looking up at a depth chart that was loaded with veterans such as Al Horford, Aron Baynes, and Marcus Morris. Those three players are gone now, and while it appears Williams remains a few steps away from being a significant contributor, the opportunity will absolutely be there for him if he is able to grab it.
“I told him that what he makes of this chance is going to depend largely on the amount of work he puts in,” Allen said. “He nodded his head and I think he’s aware of it, and thus far he’s demonstrated some things that could help propel us forward. Hopefully, he remains consistent.”
Allen said that after the Celtics’ season ended last May, the staff was primarily focused on helping Williams improve his diet and conditioning before concentrating on ways to help his game blossom. Williams played just 283 minutes with the Celtics last season, and sometimes it was a challenge for him to stay in game shape when he was not actually playing in games.
But he said he revamped his diet and ramped up his training, and now he is locked in on refining his game. He spent much of last season on the bench studying Horford and Baynes, and that gave him a good mental catalog to work with.
“I learned kind of how to make my moves effective,” Williams said.
“Like, Al isn’t the fastest person, but one thing that always amazed me about him was any time he got the ball, even if you knew what he was doing, it’s effective as hell. I kind of took to that. He taught me how to really put an emphasis on my moves.
“And watching Baynes showed me the importance of just going straight up on defense instead of swiping down. Honestly, I don’t even always have to block it. Making them alter it is a great solution too.”
Pace has been quite important for Williams. Allen and the other coaches have worked with him on getting in and out of his screens efficiently, freeing him up to strike more quickly, either as a passer, a finisher, or maybe eventually, a jump shooter.
Allen said there is still so much room for Williams to improve, but he already has an advantage because he possesses physical gifts that few others can match. And the Celtics hope that that truth will keep Williams motivated.
“It’s got to be earned, man,” Williams said. “It’s all in front of me, like they’ve been saying. But I’ve got to earn it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”