When he arrived at Texas A&M in 2016 as a skinny teenager from northwest Louisiana, his coaches saw his potential during the first week of practices. Williams stood at 6' 9" with a 7' 6" wingspan, an impressive vertical and relatively light feet on the perimeter. On top of that, he was comfortable with the ball in his hands, belying the stereotype of a rim-running center.
“I felt like he had God-given abilities, but he didn’t know it,” says former Aggies assistant Isaac Chew, who is currently an assistant at New Mexico. “He was just scratching the surface.”
It took some time for Williams’s talent to translate on the floor. But an early-season practice in 2016 showed what he could do. Pitted against returning big men Tyler Davis, Tonny Trocha-Morelos and DJ Hogg, Williams was in for a little initiation. After multiple rounds of pushing and shoving, however, Williams was set off. There would be no more niceties from the soft-spoken freshman.
“When he gets mad, he can kick his game up to another level,” former A&M coach Billy Kennedy says. “One time early on, somebody popped him in the face, and he just started taking over the whole practice. Blocking shots, shooting the ball, going end-to-end—he just dominated everything.
“Being able to channel Robert’s talent was our biggest challenge. And that didn’t take too long, to be honest.”
Williams impressed from the outset in College Station. He earned All-SEC honors as a freshman, and won SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2016–17 and '17–18, before the Celtics selected him in the first round of the '18 draft.
He spent his rookie season in Boston largely tethered to the bench behind a veteran group, but his unique offensive skill was evident in his scant minutes on the floor. By Year 2, Williams’s trajectory as the Celtics’ big man of the future became more of a reality.
Now in his fourth season in Boston, after signing a four-year, $54 million extension this past offseason, Williams is increasingly relied on as both a facilitator on offense and a rim protector on defense. As the Celtics look to steady the ship after a shaky 5–6 start to 2021–22, Williams has a chance to provide a spark.
Williams’s maturity as a playmaker has translated in the NBA. The 24-year-old averaged 3.4 assists per 36 minutes last season and has been a steady presence with the ball near the foul line early this season. He is a frequent dribble-handoff partner with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and he’s an effective short roller when defenses look to trap Boston’s young wings late in games. Williams’s ability to spin dimes to streaking cutters is a natural gift.
“I’ve always loved passing the ball,” Williams says. “And then these past two or three years, I’ve been with Jaylen and Jayson and Marcus [Smart] and guys who work hard to score the ball. So I figure why not take as much pressure off them as possible?
“I want to be a threat in every way I can.”
As Boston searches for a stable presence at point guard—Dennis Schröder is shooting 39.3% from the field entering Friday night—increased reliance on Williams and the team’s other skilled centers (Al Horford and Grant Williams) could be a sensible pivot.
“We can run a lot of the sets [with Robert and Grant] that we run with Al,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka says. “It doesn’t change too much between those guys when they’re each comfortable handling it, passing from the post, doing all of that.”
Williams is an effective offensive option, but ultimately his contributions on that end are more complementary than necessary. To return to Finals contention, the Celtics will need Williams to trend toward All-Defense status.
Williams wasn’t exactly a well-rounded rim protector in his first seasons in the league. Missed rotations and conditioning concerns limited his playing time in the Brad Stevens era, and he played more than 30 minutes just once last season. Bursts of strong play were met with stretches of defensive indifference. Williams was largely a per-36-minutes star in recent seasons.
Early returns in 2021–22 suggest Williams is growing into a more consistent force. There’s a notable discipline to his defense. He has recorded more than two fouls just once in 11 games entering Friday night, with continued improvement as a lateral defender. Williams is increasingly adept at defending guards and wings in space, and crucially, he's not biting on shot fakes to the same degree as previous seasons.
Sheer block totals can be deceiving, often rewarding weak-side opportunists. Williams is nothing of the sort in his fourth season. He’s now a steady back-line anchor, one whose intelligence is increasingly relied upon.
“Rob has always been a rim threat and a rim protector, but now he’s finding his voice," Tatum says. "He directs traffic for guys on both ends; he’s talking on the bench. It’s big to have him as a presence."
The Celtics sit in a bit of a precarious position in the Eastern Conference as the season rolls into its second month. The Bucks and Nets likely stand as the favorites in the East until further notice, while the conference looks deeper than it has in years. Boston avoiding the play-in tournament is no guarantee.
Make no mistake, the Celtics remain in an envious position with Tatum and Brown as pillars of the franchise. But they are in a relative retooling period after the departures of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and a host of contributing veterans.
Williams will likely be an important player in whichever route Boston takes in the coming years. The simplest path is for Williams to grow alongside Tatum and Brown, ideally holding his own against Joel Embiid, Bam Adebayo and the rest of the league’s marquee big men in key playoff series. If the Celtics can find one more impact shot creator, a return to the top tier of the East isn’t out of the question.
Yet there is one perhaps unsettling timeline for fans of Time Lord. His skill set makes him a plug-and-play big across the league, and his contract could fit nicely into a package for an All-Star (hello, Bradley Beal). Just as Al Jefferson anchored a trade for Kevin Garnett more than a decade ago, Williams could serve as the bridge to Boston’s next Big Three. Such a scenario is in play as the Celtics' front office looks to capitalize on Brown and Tatum’s respective primes.
Whatever the outcome, though, Chew isn't concerned. He believes the best is yet to come for his former pupil.
“His willingness to change his game, to embrace his role, that’s how he’s gonna create some real longevity," Chew says. "There’s no ceiling on what Robert can be.”
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