In defense of Grant Williams, the Celtics’ overlooked breakout candidate

Tomase: In defense of Grant, the Celtics’ overlooked breakout candidate originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Our last image of Grant Williams didn’t exactly send us into the summer desperate to see what he’d do next.

With the NBA Finals slipping away and the Celtics collectively running out of gas like so many station wagons during the 1970s oil crisis, Williams was nakedly exposed. A series that started with his expressed admiration for Warriors All-Star pest Draymond Green ended with the grizzled veteran first in his ear and then in his head.

Williams complained to officials, took bad fouls, passed up open looks, and forced coach Ime Udoka’s hand. With the entire bench picking a bad time to go catatonic, Williams averaged three points and fewer than 15 minutes in the final three losses.

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That led to an offseason mandate to update the supporting cast. In came former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon to add playmaking and shot-making, but more relevant to Williams, the Celtics also signed sharp-shooting veteran forward Danilo Gallinari. If the C’s were fortunate enough to return to the Finals, they’d have someone coming off the bench who could stick a 3.

That plan didn’t even survive August. The 34-year-old Gallinari tore his ACL playing for Italy in a FIBA World Cup qualifier and will almost certainly miss the season. That puts the spotlight back on Williams as the first big man off the Celtics bench, and so here’s a question: what if that’s a good thing?

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The what-have-you-done-for-me-lately factor has been a part of sports fandom since Pheidippides raced 26.2 miles to deliver the news of the victory at Marathon in 490 BC and then promptly dropped dead. (Commentators at the time, probably: “Quitter.”)

Williams is feeling the sting of recency bias particularly acutely, since he stumbled at exactly the moment when the Celtics desperately needed help for Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford. His failures became more glaring when juxtaposed against the contributions the Warriors received from Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, and Gary Payton Jr., though he was by no means alone.


But judging him on three games, or one series, misses the bigger picture. Williams may never be Draymond, but the tools are there to make for a convincing stunt double. Consider how far he has come since his rookie year, when he missed his first 25 3-pointers, to last season, when he made 41.1 percent from distance, mostly in what became known as the corner office.

And while the playoffs ended poorly, they included no shortage of highlights, whether it was effectively checking Kyrie Irving on switches vs. the Nets, standing his ground vs. both Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, or most memorably, drilling seven 3-pointers in the Game 7 clincher vs. the Bucks.

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Still only 23 years old and entering his fourth season, Williams is the biggest breakout candidate on the roster. There’s almost no chance he has already peaked. That’s not how basketball works. Plenty of legitimate players have averaged single digits at age 23 with a decent 3-point stroke and then gone on to become vital cogs on winning teams, be it Detlef Schrempf, Jimmy Butler, or Marcus Morris.

Imagine a world in which Williams maintains his regular-season 3-point stroke in the playoffs, adds to his burgeoning post game as a 6-foot-6 banger, and perhaps expands his skills as a playmaker, particularly on hard drives past closeouts in the corner.

Add his calling-card defensive versatility — at one point in the playoffs Williams had combined to hold Durant and Antetokounmpo to 36 percent shooting — and you’re looking at “Draymond Lite.” On a Celtics team that already includes an all-world player in Tatum, an All-Star sidekick in Brown, and established veterans like Horford, Brogdon, and Marcus Smart, there’s a lane for a complementary grinder in the frontcourt alongside the high-flying Robert Williams.

The role is there for the taking if Grant Williams can just embrace it. Fortunately, he’s a prime candidate to show better maturity, whether that’s toning down his histrionics with the refs (please, please, please put a cork in it), avoiding needless shoving matches with instigators like Green, or taking open shots even if his confidence is ebbing.

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He clearly owns a winning personality, which is why he’s always mic’d up, and why teammates gleefully mock him for demanding alley-oops in the open court or requesting to be called Batman after shutting down MVP Nikola Jokic. It’s also why he has become an amusing foil for Warriors superstar Steph Curry, whose ESPYs putdowns seem more about trollish affection than actual animosity. Teammates and opponents give it to the motor-mouthed Williams because they know he can take it.

So while the Gallinari news is a tough way to start training camp, it does create an opportunity for one of the true X-factors on the roster. Don’t be surprised if Williams runs with it.

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