BOSTON — It’s been two months since we last saw Robert Williams defy the law of gravity and throw down an alley-oop slam. It’s been 31 games since we’ve seen one of his familiar volleyball blocks.
Ever since the Boston Celtics shut down Williams and his balky hip in early December, he’s been largely out of sight. But after Boston let the trade deadline pass without activity this week, Williams is very much top of mind again. And his recovery could change the trajectory of the Celtics’ 2019-20 season.
"I think one of the most important guys to our ceiling is Robert,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Friday while assessing the team’s lack of deadline activity. "As he continues to get better, that’ll be a good thing. It’ll be like picking somebody up.”
What exactly the 22-year-old Williams can offer this season is unclear. After a couple of good-news scans on his hip, including one with a doctor in New York this past week, the team has begun ramping up Williams' activity. He engaged in some on-court work this week at the Auerbach Center and the team hopes Williams will be able to join live practices after the All-Star break.
Celtics president of basketball operation Danny Ainge said Williams could be back on the court for game action by early March, which would allow the team to reform a three-headed center monster with Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter.
"I’m excited about what he has to offer us because he’s different than those guys,” said Ainge. “He's a better shot-blocker, better catching the ball around the rim, playing in the dunker position. He just gives us a different look, a different option, and more depth.”
Stevens has noted how the Celtics entered the year believing that Williams’ development was a key to the team’s overall success. He’s admitted that Williams has been antsy to get back on the floor but the team put a premium on ensuring his injury woes wouldn’t return.
Williams, the 27th pick in the 2018 draft, has appeared in only 19 games this season, and only 51 for his career. He’s averaging 3.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks over 14.2 minutes per game this season. The Celtics are 12-3 in games in which Williams has played more than 10 minutes this season.
Those that need a reminder of what Williams can do when healthy need only cue up the November 9 game against San Antonio. Williams put up 11 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting, repeatedly throwing down loud dunks, all while blocking six shots in 22 minutes.
If Williams returns for the start of Boston’s March slate, he would have 23 games to shake rust and carve out his role before the postseason arrives. Given Boston’s frenetic game schedule, he hasn’t missed much practice time during his absence and Boston’s perpetual health woes have prevented the entire squad from gaining too much continuity. The final weeks of the regular season will be vital to the entire roster.
"We are going to work him back slow,” said Stevens. "We aren’t going to have him back at even probably the minutes he was at (before injury) until two weeks after he is cleared to play. Just having another body (is important). With our center position, the more guys we can throw in, the better.
"Theis brings some amazing qualities, Enes brings some amazing qualities … when we go small with Grant Williams, that’s been really good. We just need to have flexibility and that’s what kicks in with multiple bodies, who just do each of their roles a little bit differently."
Williams' play when he’s back on the court will ultimately dictate just how much the team can lean on him.
“That’s Brad’s job to figure out where he fits in,” said Ainge. "Robert’s health is going to determine a lot of that, and how fast he can pick things back up.”
Williams has been one of the more efficient scorers in the league this season with the majority of his offense coming off lobs to the rim. He’s also one of the better passers on the team, able to facilitate in the high post and fling the ball around to Boston’s collection of talented perimeter players. Cleaning the Glass tracks an assist-to-usage metric and Williams ranks in the 93rd percentile at his position (it’d be even glossier if he could cut down some of his haphazard turnovers).
The big question with Williams is defensive consistency. The highlight blocks are fun to watch but, even before the injury, he was working towards being more disciplined. He needs to be in the right spots more often in order to earn Stevens’ trust. But his size and mobility ultimately make him an intriguing option against matchups where Theis and Kanter struggle.
A lot of Celtics fans lamented Boston’s lack of a move to add another big at Thursday’s deadline. The buyout market could offer them another opportunity to add a center but that would also require the team to make a roster move in order to bring aboard that player.
Plus, Boston faces steep competition for marquee names that become available. Kemba Walker left TD Garden lamenting the news that former Charlotte teammate Marvin Williams planned to sign with the Milwaukee Bucks after finalizing a buyout with the Hornets.
Boston’s best path forward is healthy Williams being able to emerge as a rotation-caliber big man in the playoffs. He got a small taste of the postseason last year, playing 13 minutes in three appearances. But there will likely be matchups this year where Williams’ skill set could really help Boston if he can be a consistent defensive presence.
If Williams can emerge as that impact player, teammates feel like it would raise the team's ceiling.
"I think we have another level,” said Marcus Smart. "We’ve seen it in spurts when everybody’s healthy and playing. But to have the full roster, with everybody healthy, I think we could turn up our play even more. That just makes us even more scary to play against when we get out there.”
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