Fresh off his third All-Star nod, Jayson Tatum plopped down in front of reporters on Friday morning in Detroit to discuss his latest midseason honor. As has been the case with many of Tatum’s recent press gatherings, the conversation quickly veered to Robert Williams.
“I feel like I talk about Rob every day,” Tatum quipped after invoking Williams’ name when a reporter asked who else on the Celtics — beyond Tatum and Jaylen Brown — might have All-Star potential.
“Maybe All-Star aside, I think Rob has the potential to win Defensive Player of the Year one year, one of these days,” added Tatum. "I think that's in his future coming up.”
A month ago we pondered the possibility of Williams muscling into that conversation. It felt like a long shot given the competition from recent DPOY winners like Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. Williams won’t stop forcing the conversation with his play.
Rob Williams sets impressive Celtics single-season record
But here’s something that feels a bit more definitive: The Celtics have found their third star in the 24-year-old shot-swatting Williams, who has been integral in Boston surging to fourth in the NBA in defensive rating (and, at this rate, they could soon be second behind only the Golden State Warriors) while also giving hope to salvaging the 2021-22 season.
Whenever pundits ponder the future of the Celtics, it’s invariably noted how the team needs to add another star alongside Tatum and Brown. We’re guilty of it, too. Undeniably, talent is king in the NBA and Boston should yearn to add the highest level of player possible with hopes of being a legitimate title contender.
But Williams’ emergence as someone who impacts winning at both ends of the floor while making the game easier for all of his teammates has allowed the Celtics a freedom to not necessarily have to seek the most talented player but maybe just a high-level performer that fits really well alongside the current core.
That’s a luxury that shouldn't be diminished. There were times over the past two seasons where it felt like the Celtics had to splurge on a maximum-salary-type player and cross their fingers that that person would work alongside the Jays. With Williams’ ascension and Marcus Smart showing he might just be the point guard of the future, maybe the Celtics don’t have to swing quite as hard for the fences and can be a bit more choosy about the sort of player they add next.
When he was head coach, Brad Stevens used to talk about wanting players to be superstars in their roles. That’s exactly what Williams is. He doesn’t need plays drawn up for him — well, maybe the occasional after-timeout lob is nice — and is simply content to throw-down lobs that find him (and even those that don’t) or clean up misses around the basket. Teammates love how eager Williams is to generate the best possible shot, often turning down potential open looks because he senses an open 3-point opportunity for someone else.
And, of course, there is Williams’ game-altering defense.
Opponents are shooting 42 percent when defended by Williams this season, or 4.5 percent below their expected field goal percentage, per the NBA’s tracking data. Inside of 6 feet, opponents shoot 54.7 percent, or eight percent below expectation. These numbers are quite similar to Gobert, who has won the Defensive Player of the Year award in three of the last four seasons. Gobert is holding opponents to 42.3 percent shooting overall (5.4 less than expected) and 51.15 percent inside of 6 feet (11.3 percent below expected).
The biggest difference: NBA tracking has Gobert defending a league-high 21.6 shots per game; Williams is just outside the top 50 in the NBA while defending 13.5 shots per game.
Still, Williams is fourth in the NBA with 93 blocks in 1,280 minutes of floor time. He’s only two blocks back of Gobert (95 blocks, 1,364 minutes). Most fascinating is where Williams’ blocks comes from …
It’s wild that Williams doesn’t lead the Celtics in rim blocks. Fellow frontcourt starter Al Horford (27) holds that honor and it underscores how the Celtics have maximized Williams' presence in double-big lineups.
While Udoka said the team is trying to keep Williams around the basket more lately to accentuate his shot-altering ways, the Celtics can allow Williams to roam with confidence. He can confidently defend smaller guards all the way out to the 3-point line, while his length and leaping ability give him a chance to contest just about any shot. It’s almost staggering when an opposing guard sends a rainbow over him that actually finds the basket.
It’s even more jarring when a guard thinks he can get that shot off. On Friday night, Detroit’s Hamidou Diallo got frisky after drawing Williams on a second-half switch. His mid-range jumper got swallowed up by William’s fingertips and fluttered well short of the basket.
Offensively, Williams might eventually stretch out his game a bit and has shown a workable midrange jumper. Shooting 3s is probably a bit further down the road. But Williams is understandably content with just finishing around the basket. He’s shooting a career best 81 percent at the rim this season. Eighty-two percent of his shots come inside of 4 feet from the hoop. Williams is averaging 149.1 points per 100 shot attempts and only Mitchell Robinson (150.2) has a better number among big men this season, per Cleaning the Glass data.
The best number on Williams’ stat line though is games played. After three injury-diminished seasons, Williams has appeared in nearly 80 percent of Boston’s games this year. Beyond a two-game absence for the birth of his son, Williams has been an every-night presence for the better part of the past month.
Here’s the other tantalizing part: The Celtics believe Williams has only scratched the surface on his potential.
“Not even close to reaching his ceiling,” said Udoka, after being apprised of Tatum’s All-Star-caliber praise. “[Williams has] improved in a lot of areas this year, impacting the game in every kind of way and I think everybody sees the value in what he brings to the game on both sides of the ball. He’s growing in confidence and we all love to see it, so I feel the exact same way as Jayson.”
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Williams’ box score stuffing ways have made it obvious a rare 5x5 game — registering at least 5 in statistical categories like points, rebounds, steals, assists, and blocks — is in his future. It’s only happened 21 times by 15 players since the NBA started officially tracking steals and blocks in 1972.
And, in typical Williams fashion, he’s not concerned about individual accolades.
“No, I'm trying to win,” said Williams. "That’s all I’m worried about is winning.”
Which is all a future All-Star should be concerned about.