Robert Williams is the most important player for the Boston Celtics during the 2021-22 season.
You’re looking at the byline on this column and probably rolling your eyes at that declaration. And even Williams’ biggest cheerleader would admit it feels weird to suggest that anyone could possibly be more vital to this year’s team than Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
But hear us out.
If Tatum and Brown are the pillars of this Celtics squad then Williams is the weight-bearing beam. His sturdiness might just dictate Boston’s overall potential. After appearing in only half of the Celtics' regular-season games over his first three seasons in the league, Williams’ ability to stay on the floor might dictate Boston’s ceiling moving forward.
Even new head coach Ime Udoka admitted as much last week while discussing the team’s decision to hold Williams out of Boston’s preseason finale due to knee soreness.
Said Udoka: "He’s a guy that is obviously invaluable to our team and what we want to do.” The Celtics are optimistic Williams will be ready when the season tips on Wednesday night in New York.
The Celtics should feel confident that Tatum and Brown are going to produce at a high level this season. Their advancements will most certainly play a huge role in the success of the campaign.
But the Jays are the first to admit they can’t carry this team by themselves. The Celtics have sought the pieces that best accentuate the talents of Tatum and Brown. And that’s why Williams is so important.
The Celtics have played some of their most intriguing basketball with Williams on the floor with the Jays. Tatum declared last season that Williams might be his favorite player to share the floor with. And with good reason, too, as the Celtics had a plus-4.5 net rating in the 697 minutes that Tatum and Williams shared the court last year.
The Celtics showed their belief in Williams this summer when they delivered a four-year extension worth up to $54 million. It could be the steal of the summer if Williams taps into his full potential, and helps the Celtics' core do the same.
And it starts with simply being on the court and harnessing all the various flashes of his potential that we’ve seen over the past three years.
“I did see [Williams' potential early] but I’m even more surprised just how much more solid he has become,” said Al Horford, who mentored Williams in the infancy of his NBA career and could pair with him in Boston’s starting frontcourt this season.
“Just with his approach and, defensively, his feel for the game. Now that he has that extension, it’s time for him to go out there, enjoy it, make an impact, and have fun. He showed flashes, he’s definitely shown flashes. Now, can he be consistent with it? That’s his next challenge.”
Williams got paid but remains hungry
There are instances where it seems that the man nicknamed Time Lord might truly be capable of seeing the future.
Like on Wednesday night when Orlando’s Wendell Carter Jr. went sprinting toward the sideline looking to keep a loose ball alive. Williams seemed to sense what was about to happen, even before Carter Jr. reached the ball. Breaking like a defensive back towards Carter Jr.’s intended receiver, Williams intercepted the desperation save in Magic territory then zipped a baseline pass to a wide open Aaron Nesmith for a layup.
It’s those instincts that make Williams different. Oh sure, he put himself on the map with all those volleyball-spike blocks and alley-oop dunks, but it’s his feel for the game and impeccable timing that set him apart.
“I was watching the Celtics games last year and I was looking at the stats and I was like, ‘Wow, [Williams] is really improving so much,” said Enes Kanter, another Boston big back after a brief absence. “Now he can shoot the ball a little bit, he can pass. We already know he’s a defensive freak and he can jump out of the gym. Now he’s learning. He’s adding things into his game ...
“He’s going to be a totally different player this year.”
The best change Williams can make is simply being available more often. He appeared in a career-best 52 games last season but injuries forced him out of Boston’s first-round playoff series against the Nets.
Williams is adamant none of his NBA maladies should be long-term concerns. He believes Boston’s trainers are doing all they can to keep him upright and, at least before his knee swelled, he felt at near full health coming out of the summer.
Williams has big plans for the new season. He feels the responsibility that comes with a new contract. Even though that money doesn’t truly kick in until next season, he noted, “When people put their trust in you, you got to take it seriously.” He yearns to give Celtics fans something to be excited about.
“It’s amazing the pride that Boston fans take in sports. It’s honestly amazing, it’s not like this anywhere,” said Williams, who implored his agent to get an extension done this offseason, even if he could have secured himself even more money with a solid year this season.
"We want to be part of that celebration. We want to bring the fans happiness, bring the community happiness.”
Williams said it’s still settling in that he inked his big-money extension. He went through what he called “three days of shock,” as he tearfully phoned family members to give them the good news. His only splurge in the aftermath: Buying his mother, Tondra, a new home in his native Louisiana.
The Celtics serenaded Williams with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” after Sunday’s practice. He’s still only 24 years old but he yearns to be more of a veteran voice on this team this season.
“Honestly, I just want to be a way bigger vocal leader,” said Williams. “Usually, I try to lead by example, but I’ve been kind of pressuring myself to be a vocal leader.
"I feel like, honestly, the years before maybe I would have had something to say but I'd hold it in a little bit. But, for me, feeling like it's for the better of the team, I got to speak up about this.”
Williams is also eager to cut down on his random miscues. Sometimes his brain is going so fast after getting the ball that he'll rifle a pass right to an opponent. Elevating to a heftier role will allow him to play through those mistakes.
“My next step, honestly, is just gaining their confidence,” said Williams. “A confidence that my teammates trust me. So my teammates know that if I mess up one time, hey, we trust you enough to know you’re going to get it back."
Time Lord's talent and upside is undeniable
There’s a sequence in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of Boston’s first-round playoff series against the Nets that deserves an NBA TopShot. Williams got switched onto James Harden and shuffled fast enough to deny Harden's initial drive at the basket. Harden calmly dribbled back to the 3-point line, went between his legs, and launched a familiar step-back 3-pointer that’s practically unstoppable.
Williams stayed with Harden the entire possession and blocked the jumper.
It was one of nine blocks in a game where Williams was playing with nine healthy toes. He said the adrenaline of playing against a super team like Brooklyn carried him that night.
That moment and that game was one of those super tantalizing glimpses of how Williams can truly impact this team. The Celtics limited the Nets to 104 points and forced them to rally from behind in the second half.
Williams isn’t going to block nine shots each night -- it only feels that way sometimes -- but even in a preseason where he looked a little clunky, he was routinely swatting 20+ foot jumpers and creating chaos on the defensive end.
Pairing him with Boston’s most talented players could only further allow Williams to spread his wings.
“Rob improved so much, not only through college but in the NBA,” said teammate Grant Williams. “He’s one of the best bigs in the league and he’s going to prove that this year.”
Robert Williams blocked 4.7 percent of all opponent shot attempts while he was on the floor last season (ranking in the 97th percentile among all bigs, per Cleaning the Glass data). His steal percentage ranked in the 86th percentile among all bigs. Even as he starts to stretch out his offensive game, Robert Williams knows his bread-and-butter is finishing around the basket (he shot 80 percent at the rim last year) and can put real stress on defenses to pick their poison if he’s rolling to the basket with the Jays operating on the perimeter.
The dropoff to any of Boston’s other bigs is pronounced if Robert Williams can’t stay on the court. How much can the Celtics lean on a 35-year-old Horford? Kanter has his obvious defensive limitations. The Celtics would really have to lean into smallball without Robert Williams on the court.
Which is just another reason we keep coming back to Robert Williams as the most important player this season. The Celtics need him on the floor and impacting games. If he’s able to stay healthy, this team can emerge as a legitimate contender in the East. If he doesn’t, we’re far less bullish on that possibility.
No player, outside of Tatum and Brown, will dictate the success of this season -- and maybe even deeper into the future -- as much as Robert Williams.