Over the first 62 games of his rookie season, Grant Williams displayed a high basketball IQ, NBA-ready strength, and a Marcus Smart-like ability to make good things happen whenever he was on the court.
But the one thing that held Williams back was his shooting and an inability to keep defenses honest by knocking down open 3-point looks.
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Williams missed the first 25 3-point attempts of his pro career and shot only 24.7 percent overall beyond the arc. Even if you wipe away those initial misses, Williams shot a mere 32.3 percent after his first make, a number that still needs to rise to prevent teams from sagging off him.
Shooting was a focus for Williams since the NBA season paused. Bunking with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker during quarantine had to help his shot, too, right?
Celtics big man Enes Kanter offered an encouraging update from inside Boston’s initial bubble practices in Orlando.
"Let me tell you something about Grant, he is making 3s like crazy. I promise,” Kanter said on this week’s “The Enes Kanter Show,” on the NBC Sports Boston podcast network. "The Celtics fans might not believe this but he is one of like the most sharpest shooters on the team. I think he worked so hard during the quarantine time, now he’s like a 3-man.
“When he's shooting 3, you gotta respect that; if you close him out, he’s beating you with a dribble. I’m excited about him.”
Take Kanter’s scouting report with a grain of salt. He’s an elite teammate with a propensity for talking up players. But even if Williams is simply closer to a league-average 3-point shooter when games restart, that could be a big boost for Boston.
If Williams can keep defenses honest, it increases the chances that coach Brad Stevens can trust him in his playoff rotation. For a Boston team thin on experience after their top 7, having at least one rookie emerge as a reliable playoff option is critical. Williams would be particularly valuable because there is likely to be a series where the Celtics must lean on small-ball lineups and Kanter’s playing time could be limited in those instances.
Meeting with reporters during a Zoom session last week, Williams looked leaner and hinted at an increased confidence in his abilities.
"If you ask any of the guys on the team, I’m still a rookie. But, for me, I just feel confident in my abilities now, more confident than I was at the beginning of the year,” said Williams. "It’s rare to not only play against the best athletes, like I was before, but before I was kind of nervous, I feel like, and during the year got me accustomed to realize you belong here.
"So for me it’s more confidence and more able to do a lot of better things on the court. So hopefully I just expand my role and help this team get to what our goal is.”
During a previous Zoom call from Boston before the team departed, Williams also noted his desire to improve his perimeter play.
"It’s something that we all have to go through. I used [the break] as an advantage more so to work on my game, my ball-handling more so, and just become more comfortable as a perimeter player,” said Williams.
Here’s why a 3-point shot is so important for Williams. Despite playing mostly back-to-the-basket in college, 40.6 percent of his shots during his rookie season were catch-and-shoot, according to NBA tracking data, and he made only 25.6 percent of them. What’s more, nearly 30 percent of all his jump shots outside of 10 feet were deemed “wide open” (no defender within 6 feet) and Williams made only 26.3 percent of those attempts.
Defenses will stray, especially in the playoffs, and that will force stars like Walker and Jayson Tatum to battle more double teams if Williams is on the floor. He has to keep teams honest.
And a consistent 3-point shot is the best weapon against a wandering defender.