Robert Williams: Better than you thought, but not as good as you think

Robert Williams has made a strong impression to begin his rookie season for the Celtics. So strong, in fact, that he's managed to cover some key weaknesses that he'll need to work on to earn more minutes.

 Robert Williams in context

The novelty of a lottery-caliber center falling to the Boston Celtics as a 27th overall pick has put an early spotlight on the ostensibly always-late Robert Williams. The origin story of Williams becoming a fan favorite started off weird and has only gotten weirder since. His falling draft stock due to concerns over his motor was a puzzling piece of criticism given that players who don't care about basketball typically don't win Defensive Player of the Year awards in college - something Williams did twice in the SEC. A creeping suspicion that a soon-to-be pro basketball player might not actually be invested in their basketball career is almost defensible if you focus on the worst-case scenarios like Hasheem Thabeet (drafted second overall to Memphis in '09) and Darko Milicic (second overall to Detroit in loaded '03 draft). This excerpt on Thabeet is one of the most intriguing windows into what happens behind closed doors in the NBA world:

There was a revealing moment in practice not long after Thabeet’s arrival. Thabeet was playing at the lackluster pace he had shown in every practice since we’d acquired him, and during one drill he gave up an offensive rebound and then didn’t challenge a putback dunk. One of our assistant coaches had seen enough. He jumped onto the floor from the sideline right into Thabeet’s path.
“What was that? You got pushed around and gave up a dunk! You’re seven-foot-three. BE SEVEN-FOOT THREE!”
There was a moment of awkward silence in the gym and then the drill continued. Nothing noticeably changed in Thabeet’s play — that day, or the rest of the season. In the summer he signed with Oklahoma City for close to the minimum, and when that contract was done so was his NBA career. - Ben Falk,

As for Milicic, a quote from the man himself:

“There were some situations where I’ve already scored 20 points, but in my head I’m thinking: ‘When will this game finally end, come on, let’s pack it up and go home.’ I just had to feed my ego, I couldn’t care less what’s going to happen the following week. My whole approach since coming to the United States was just wrong.” - via the Herald Sun

Those rare cases can cause an over-correction in how players are evaluated, so much so that people are still paranoid that highly drafted European players are destined to be the next Andrea Bargnani (whose career is impossible to evaluate and really shouldn't be used as a baseline for anything). The following list of Bargnani facts are all true and very confusing:

  • Drafted 1st overall
  • Named to All-Rookie First Team
  • Averaged over 21 points in just one season (played 66 games)
  • Played for 10 seasons
  • Never made an All-Star team
  • Waived mid-season by the Nets in 2016 - a team that went 21-61
  • Finished his career in Baskonia

The next European best-guy-in-the-draft was taken third! And then the Atlanta Hawks used him to trade down! (Congrats to the Dallas Mavericks for effectively winning the 2018 Luka lottery) The key characteristic that ties most high-lottery busts together is indifference towards the sport of basketball, as evidenced by the aforementioned big men and their quick decline from the realm of high expectations. Luka Doncic and Robert Williams showed no such apathy toward their profession, and yet here we are.

All of that context to say: we can see the origin of the concerns about Williams' work ethic. There's no other viable reasoning behind it, but at least we can see where people were coming from. Context is always good.

First impressions off the court

The next example of weirdness was when Williams slept through a conference call the morning after being drafted, followed by missing his flight to Boston a couple weeks later. Williams has since been known as the Time Lord, a title decreed by the guerrilla anti-fascist sub-section of Celtics Twitter known as 'Weirdcelticstwitter', a group whose existence formed around being the polar opposite of the angry and abrasive media market that Boston is known as. (This is an over-simplified explanation; it would take me 2,000 more words to thoroughly describe Weirdcelticstwitter) Williams' nickname comes on the premise that he wasn't actually late for anything but, instead, he was "operating on a different timeline concurrent to our own."

So what we have in Williams is:

  • A lottery-level talent turned late-first round godsend...
  • who turned into a perpetually late off-court liability...
  • who then was crowned the Lord of Time...
  • who then became a secret project because the Celtics essentially did not use him for their first 25 games, in which he only played about 27 minutes.

And people were trying to draw conclusions from this? Insanity.

First impressions on the court

Opportunity finally came for Williams when Al Horford and Aron Baynes were sidelined due to injury, leaving the Celtics with no choice but to give Williams a spin at matching up with Anthony Davis.

Overall, Davis finished that game with 41 points, seven rebounds, four steals, and two hook shots that were swatted away by the rookie. Still, If Williams can hold Davis to under 50% shooting, is there anyone he can't defend? Should the Celtics plug him into the rotation right away? It's debatable, but signs point towards sticking with a more gradual approach. Williams has the instincts and quickness to block any shot at any time, unlike anything we've ever seen. His court presence alone raises excitement levels in the TD Garden from a six to about a nine on the hype meter, which has oddly become more of a distraction than anything. The Celtics - notoriously bad at throwing lob passes - are trying to set Williams up for alley-oops with passes that are either comically high or straight into the hands of a defender who doesn't even have great positioning (which may be prompting a rushed pass to Rob). Some of these passes are so ill-advised that even a six-foot-ten guy with a seven-foot-six wingspan who can nearly jump over the backboard doesn't have the reach to pull them in. Imagine throwing a basketball outside the volume of area in which you could reasonably throw a lob pass for Robert Williams to catch, and now imagine throwing a ball at the broadside of a barn and missing. These two things are, in fact, the same. These errant passes are often not the fault of Williams himself, but I'd have a hard time calling it purely coincidental that he's involved in so many broken plays. 

The bigger picture

Despite all the thunderous blocks, Williams' greatest weaknesses still lie on the defensive end. It may not seem like it, but he's been non-committal with opportunities to switch (and switch back), and opposing teams have been pretty quick to exploit it.

Williams clearly sees the switch coming and moves to stop De'Anthony Melton from getting too far ahead of Tatum before switching back to Ayton. As soon as he switches back, he takes a step back to the basket leaving Ayton with plenty of room to shoot. To be fair, nobody in green is guarding aggressively, which makes losing to Phoenix at home a lot less surprising in retrospect.

Again, Williams moves to cut off Melton before getting back to Ayton. After briefly trapping the corner with Tatum, Williams slides back to where he thinks Ayton should be while Ayton cuts behind his back for an easy finish at the rim. I wouldn't look at this as a lack of understanding but more as a case of just going through the motions of playing defense instead of staying alert. As we know, the Celtics have issues with starting out games on the right foot, and defensive lapses like this one are par for the course when low intensity has everyone playing on auto-pilot.

It's easy to cherry-pick mistakes and, obviously, these two plays don't define Williams as a player, but if you're wondering why he's fallen mostly out of the rotation after his brief breakout moment, I think these types of mistakes are why. Stevens generally keeps a short leash on rookies if he's got enough depth ahead of them (e.g. rookie year Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, but not rookie year Marcus Smart), so we'll have to temper our expectations of Williams if he continues to make defensive mistakes.

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