Late in the first half of Sunday’s scrimmage, while the other members of Boston Celtics’ bulky rookie class were still glued to the bench, coach Brad Stevens deployed Grant Williams as a small-ball center in starter-heavy lineups.
Williams’ stat line over that final 5 minutes, 33 seconds of the second quarter doesn’t leap off the page: 2 points, 0 shot attempts, 0 rebounds, and a block. But it was the little things he did that showed how he can carve out a role. And finishing plus-7 in that span didn’t hurt either.
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When he wasn’t calmly handling switches that required him to pick up Suns star Devin Booker, Williams was shuffling his feet to stay in front of a charging Dario Saric and blocking his layup attempt near the basket. Williams ate an elbow to the temple while defending center DeAndre Ayton to force a turnover.
Williams’ defensive versatility, and his strength to joust with the NBA bigs he will be giving up size against, gives him a chance to crack Boston’s rotation at the NBA restart. The question remains whether he can do enough, offensively, to ensure that Stevens can lean on him, particularly once the playoffs begin.
"Some [second-unit] guys are showing some things that I think can make our best players better,” Stevens said after Sunday’s scrimmage. "Those will be the guys that end up in the rotation, the guys that can bring out the best in our best players.”
The pre-pause portion of Williams’ rookie season was defined by two things: His lengthy 0-fer start beyond the 3-point arc and his very unrookie-like chatty nature.
Despite his shooting woes (24.7 percent beyond the 3-point arc overall) and constant ribs from teammates about how he rarely shuts up, Williams endeared himself while standing plus-146 in 970 minutes of floor time. Only Toronto’s Terence Davis (plus-225, 1,087 minutes) had a higher total among rookies.
While the Celtics will lean heavily on their core players during this bubble postseason, the team really needs one of its younger players to emerge as a steady presence in inconsistent minutes. Stevens has hinted that fellow 2019 first-round pick Romeo Langford could see situational time but Williams has always seemed like the rookie with the best chance to have a more consistent postseason role.
The 21-year-old simply has to keep defenses honest with his shot. Especially when paired with starter talent, opponents will stray and challenge Williams to knock down open looks. Williams splashed a 3-pointer early in his floor time against Oklahoma City in Friday’s scrimmage opener, sending eyebrows skyward, but missed four of his six shots overall including another 3-point look soon after his make.
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Williams looks leaner coming out of quarantine, maybe with a focus on increasing his defensive versatility at the NBA level. He rode out the break in his native Charlotte, living with veteran teammate Kemba Walker. Celtics fans will hope some of Walker’s shooting touch rubbed off on the younger player during the stay.
Stevens has often noted how Williams should have a lengthy NBA career ahead of him based on his basketball I.Q. and his ability to make things happen on the court. Williams likes to brand himself as a mini-Marcus Smart (even though he’s taller) and yearns to do all the little things that sometimes go overlooked.
The Celtics need that sort of low-usage player who is content to set the screen that allows Gordon Hayward a clean 3-point look. They need someone who can defend multiple positions and look comfortable doing it. They need a player who can make a hustle play or take a well-timed charge.
Williams checks all those boxes. But a consistent shot is the key to unlocking his rotation role.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Bucks, which begins Friday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.