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One-on-One With Celtics’ Grant Williams: The Art of Being a Role Player

The Boston forward talks about who he models his game after, his toughest assignments and more.

Grant Williams entered the playoffs as an intelligent, versatile defender who attempted and made more threes in his third year than in his first two combined. He was all-around solid enough, as a 23-year-old seventh man on a serious title contender.

Fast forward to today, and Williams is integral, averaging eight more minutes in the postseason than he did during the regular season. (Only 11 players have logged more minutes overall.) He’s also shooting 41.9% from behind the arc on nearly five attempts per game—including an iconic 7-for-18 Game 7 against the Bucks.

That shot matters. But it’s on the defensive end where Grant has really shined, be it outmuscling Kevin Durant in the first round or standing his ground against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday in the conference semifinals.

Altogether, Williams’s skill set is a rare, treasured commodity. Right before the Celtics flew to Miami for Game 5, I caught up with him to chat about the playoffs, who he models himself after, who the toughest assignment is in the league, why he’s confident against Bam Adebayo and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SI: Not to kick this off by asking a weird question, but how does your body feel right now? You’ve taken as much punishment in this playoff run as any player that I can remember since I started covering the league. Have you ever felt like you do right now, playing basketball?

Grant Williams: Definitely not. But, hey, this is what the playoffs and everything is about, right? It’s my role to deal with. It’s something you embrace, and I feel like it’s just even more fun because it’s something that I feel is unique. And I don’t see many guys that can do the same things that I do.

SI: Which is what, exactly?

GW: Just like in terms of going from the first series of guarding Kyrie and KD, then going to the next series with Giannis, the guys there. And now it’s what, Bam and Jimmy [Butler], and having primary matchups with each one of them. Even next series, maybe Steph [Curry] and those guys? It’s interesting.

SI: Have you started any new routines in these playoffs, like to unwind postgame or pregame to get ready? Are you doing anything differently?

GW: I actually haven’t changed much besides getting more physical therapy because during the regular season, I don’t really do much; I don’t feel the need. My body doesn’t hurt or anything like that. That next step is deep-tissue stuff. [But] basically the body composition I have, it’s the difference between basketball and football and how physical you can be. It helps me a little bit.

SI: Did you see your role expanding as it has, where you’re kind of invaluable to a team that’s in the conference finals? You’re averaging 32 minutes a game, which is way up from the regular season. Did you see this happening for yourself?

GW: I definitely kind of saw it as I was growing. I remember my rookie year, a similar thing kind of happened where I was asked to expand my role. So I pictured it just because I had a feeling that was going to be asked of me. But it’s definitely different to picture it versus it actually happening. It’s still kind of surreal to be going through, and also doing what we’re supposed to do and having the success we’re supposed to have; it’s gonna be even more fun to look back on.

Boston Celtics forward Grant Williams (12) drives to the basket against as Miami Heat center Omer Yurtseven.

SI: Was there a game or a moment or a conversation or a play that kind of let you picture this for yourself? Over the past few weeks?

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GW: Game 7 was fun and all, but honestly it was before that. It was before that that made me realize like, All right you have some value. It was Game 2 against Brooklyn and Milwaukee where I had some success, and I was like, Dang, you’re really holding your own, just keep doing that and that’s all I need to do. I remember telling myself that and having so much fun with it.

SI: Some players are ahead of their time. Some players come a little too late and they kind of get phased out before their career naturally ends, just off trends and styles that become popular throughout the league. You feel perfect for this era. You can guard five positions, you shoot the three-ball at a 40% clip. When you look at some of the great role players in the NBA right now, where do you see yourself in that conversation?

GW: In all honesty I see myself at the top of the list. I might not necessarily be the scorer that some guys are, like maybe the Tyler Herros and guys of that nature. But I feel like I provide things that they don’t provide. And, honestly, I just really, really feel confident at this point.

SI: How would you specifically describe that role?

GW: Just being a great teammate, being a guy that everyone can rely on while also holding guys accountable and being willing to be told things as well. On the court, really just defend anybody at any time and knock down open threes. That’s probably the most important thing, especially for our team, knocking down those shots. Last but not least, bringing that competitive fire and bringing that energy so that people can always rely on you off the court but also on.

SI: Just from listening to all your interviews, watching some clips on Instagram—like Deuce leaving you hanging—you seem like an essential, loose presence in Boston’s locker room. How do you keep things light off the court?

GW: I feel like I can be the brunt of every joke, but I always joke myself. Nothing’s ever personal, so the team can gang up on me, the coaching staff, everybody just laughs. And it’s like, you’re that guy. You don’t take it personally; you just laugh. I’m bringing that goofy nature that brings people together and also tries to support everybody.

SI: I haven't heard Batman in a while. Is that dead? Are we keeping that going?

GW: The fans kept it going. They have the Bat Signal before games on Twitter. But teammates, I don't think so.

SI: Are you disappointed?

GW: [Laughs.] You know what? Hey, listen, hopefully I establish myself [to the point] where everyone comes up with something better than that.

SI: A couple of weeks ago I did an interview with Stan Van Gundy, and he wondered aloud if you might be the best defender in the NBA. What’s your reaction to hearing something like that?

GW: It made me smile from ear to ear because Stan’s been great to me. My mom and dad are the ones watching TV broadcasts. And they’re always telling me what he’s saying, and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s incredible,’ because I worked to get to that point. It’s one of those things where I went from a guy that people called up in actions to now I’m getting switched off, and it’s fun to see. It’s one of those things where I feel like I’m probably the most versatile. Even if I’m not necessarily the one who gets the most steals, blocks the most shots or gets the most rebounds, I feel like I do the best job of moving from guy to guy. I can guard guys running off screens, guys coming off screens, guys setting screens, guys posting up. I feel like that’s unique. And I do a good job keeping people in front of me.

SI: You’ve spent a ton of time in these playoffs on Kevin Durant, Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and half a dozen other players with different skill sets. Mentally, as much as physically, how do you download all of that information to prepare for those matchups?

GW: I feel like I do a great job understanding people, trying to learn everything about a person and their tendencies. Like, if I have a certain matchup, I feel like I know the scouting report on any player in the league. Even the guys that just got drafted. I try my best to watch as much basketball as I can so that, not only do I want to know [new] players for my vice president role [on the players union], and get to know everyone. But also check myself because I feel like as you get older, you’re not going to be able to do the same stuff, so you better know who’s coming next and who’s behind, what they enjoy, what they’re going to do. So there’s a little bit of that competitiveness there.

SI: How much film are you actually watching?

GW: I watch a lot of games. I don’t necessarily watch film for individualities, because typically I know exactly what someone wants to do just by playing them prior or from the film that we watch as a team. So in my spare time I watch other teams. Even in this series, I kinda understand what Jimmy wants to do with his right-hand drive, stuff like that. Midrange. He’ll shot-fake; don’t foul him. Those are the things that I feel like you have to understand to be an elite defender.

SI: For Bam specifically, when he’s bringing the ball up the floor and you’re on him, what are you trying to take away? What are you looking out for? As a big, he’s physically imposing with such a unique set of skills.

GW: I think that’s what makes me so versatile. When I see that, it’s one of those things where you just want to keep the ball in front of you. With Bam—same with Giannis—he’ll kinda barrel into you and hope that you’ll get out of the way or foul him. For me, I stand tough before they get too low, and then just force him into a midrange pull-up. Force him into a shot I want him to take, rather than a dunk or a layup that he might get on someone else. For me, I’ve been guarding guys like that my whole life. It’s just a matter of using that strength to my advantage. Which most guys can’t do.

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SI: You have a long history with Bam. Does that help at all?

GW: I feel like he’s gotten so much better since then. So as much as it could help, he’s improved so much that it’s one of those things, I can’t really go off my high school scouting report. As the years have gone on, it’s gotten more and more fun to play against him because of how much he’s improved, how much he continually wants to get better and improve his shot. I’m really just excited to play him throughout my career.

SI: Who’s the toughest cover in the league?

GW: For guys like myself, the hardest people to guard are like Darius Garland. Small, shifty point guards. The longer, taller guys, and the physical guys I’m O.K. with. I do a good job on Darius and guys like that. But for me, it’s always been a small, small, small point guard that’s really shifty and quick.

SI: Where do you need to get better?

GW: Honestly, the thing that I feel like I need to improve on most is chasing guys off screens, negotiating as a guard. I’m great with switching. I’m great with guarding in isolation. So my next step is to be able to chase a guy off a screen, whether that’s a rearview contest or running guys off the line or chasing them around off floppy. That’s my next step.

SI: Do you look at any other players in the league as a model to what you can someday become?

GW: Absolutely. As a young kid I would’ve said Charles Barkley. But now that I’m more wise and knowledgeable, I’ve always been big on Boris Diaw, Draymond Green. Like, those are the guys that I, back in the day, really admired. Because those are the guys I find are most valuable to the team. There’s always gonna be 25–30 point scorers. There will be generational talents. But the guys that really make it that way, Robert Horry … the guys that every team wants. 

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