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Walsh: The Celtics don’t need a new big man

| Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Boston Celtics need to stop looking for a new big man to add the last piece to their current roster. Robert Williams III already has all the tools they need.

For the past three seasons, the largest concern for coach Brad Stevens has been matching up against the physically dominant centers of the NBA. The team has struggled to find answers against Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the East, and often suffers against lineups that run a sizable power forward and center duo. While Daniel Theis has notably improved, defending big men remains a glaring hole.

Enter Robert Williams. Commonly known as “Timelord” for missing his first introductory meeting with the team, Williams brings a unique big man athleticism and explosiveness to the Celtics lineup. At 6 feet 8 inches, he is considerably shorter than the average NBA center, but his length and agility may actually better serve the Celtics small court play style.

The big question with Williams is his defensive consistency. His timing and placement within the paint, as well as his highlight blocks, have been a refreshing sight, but he still lacks discipline. He has to be in the right spot more often — especially around the perimeter — and his problems against the pick and roll on defense is a serious concern. 

He needs to look no further than his teammates. Marcus Smart is an elite defender in the NBA, regularly securing defensive calls, and has even matched up against players half a foot taller than him. Smart has mastered the techniques that Robert Williams still needs to learn, and if he can drill his trade into Williams’ play style, he could create a terrifying defender.  

On the offensive side of the court, Williams has shown incredible promise. His length and athleticism combine to make him a fearsome option at the rim, and this forces defenses to stay conscious of his positioning, which opens up space at the perimeter for Boston’s many talented shooters. Combined with his passing ability he is an even stronger player, able to push in the high post and then fling the ball back out to teammates for an open shot. 

At the same time, Williams does not need to play a heavy share of minutes. Daniel Theis, the current starting center, can actualize a much-needed bench threat for the Celtics. Theis has shown his offensive prowess throughout this season — both with and without the ball in his hands. He is an adequate shooter from mid-range and beyond the arc, and is adept at setting picks. Theis has also perfected an outside blocking play this season: He sets an outside pick, then follows up with a second near the rim, ultimately opening up a lane from the 3-point line to the basket for his teammates. Presently playing his best season statistically, in points, rebounds and assists, Theis has proven that he, too, can be an offensive weapon. In tandem with Robert Williams, the two have the potential to establish a powerful duo. 

Behind Brad Stevens, the Celtics have toyed with the traditional lineup. Between five small men, and a constant experimentation with first- and second-line players, Stevens has constantly tried out creative solutions to fix his big man problem. 

Near this season’s trade deadline, at which Boston made no roster moves despite pressure to secure a big man, Stevens said, “I think one of the most important guys to our ceiling is Robert [Williams]. As he continues to get better, that’ll be a good thing. It’ll be like picking somebody up.”

Robert Williams is the big man pick up that the Celtics already have. He is their answer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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