As Grant Williams stays in starting lineup, Celtics have good problems to solve


You never would have taken Grant Williams for a gambling man. He’s all about being prepared, consistent and deliberate. Everything about his game screams risk-averse.

So it was a fascinating turn of events when Williams bet on himself this offseason, turning down a contract extension with the Boston Celtics before opening night. He was confident he could prove he should command serious starter money, turning down a similar deal to the one the oft-injured Rob Williams III signed a year earlier.

He recognized that Rob Williams was out, Al Horford was moving to the five, and there was this big opening in the Celtics’ mini twin-tower lineup for another Williams.

But Derrick White had been starting in the preseason. Then he was in the lineup again on opening night. Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said during training camp that starting lineups were going to be malleable, seeking to mix them up periodically to account for matchup and rhythm. Nine games into the season, nothing had changed.

Then Boston visited Memphis and Mazzulla wanted to try it out. White went to the bench and Williams got the start. He needed his defense to start imposing its will. Boston had to win the rebounding battle. The offense was clicking, but the physicality on defense was missing. Could Williams help set that tone from the beginning?

Well, it took them two weeks to lose another game, with Chicago finally getting the best of them Monday evening to snap a nine-game winning streak. Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon were both healthy, yet Williams remained a starter and White came off the bench. Why is Mazzulla sticking with Williams?

The fourth-year big is averaging 11.1 points in 32.7 minutes per night since joining the starting lineup two weeks ago. He’s shooting 43.2 percent from deep on 4.6 attempts per game, while Boston’s defensive rating has been eighth in the league over these past eight games. Those are the numbers of someone winning their bet.

“I’ve been in and out of lineups since my rookie year,” Williams told The Athletic. “So, I’m getting used to the whole, are you starting or do you have to come off the bench thing. It’s just a matter of being ready for whatever’s thrown at you.”

The struggle for Williams early in his career was the unpredictability of everything. His role constantly changed because he hadn’t locked an assignment down. He was seeing different personnel and was placed in varying spots in the lineup on a frequent basis. Williams didn’t know where and when he should look for his shot.

That became more clear last year, as he became a knockdown shooter from the corners and could attack closeouts to make that skip pass to the other side of the floor. He showed a glimpse of that next step in preseason last month, when he suddenly had a bit of an off-the-bounce game.

Twenty percent of the way through the season, he has become a legitimate wing who is looking to put the ball on the floor to make plays through the paint. He can change his direction with the ball and even drive different angles depending on how the defender closes out on him. He can kick it back behind him, throw it to the far corner or even slip it to a teammate hiding in the dunker spot behind the hoop. He’s gone from a basic passer to a real playmaking floor-spacer.

Part of that growth has been adapting to the different lineups he’s in and knowing where to look for the passing outlet.

“Yeah, it’s completely different. When you play with a Luke (Kornet) or a Rob (Williams), you have your outlet at the rim,” Williams said. “You have a guy that you can throw a lob to or you can spray it out. Al (Horford), you never know where he’ll be. He might be in the dunker (spot), he might be spaced to the 3, so it’s just a matter of understanding where he’s at and finding a creative advantage of opportunity.”

As much as players want to start, what they usually are seeking is role clarity. It took Williams a while to find that, but being entrenched in the rotation hasn’t meant his spot is stable. He never seems to be a starter for more than a brief period and he’s called upon to do all sorts of different things when he gets out there.

His versatility has become his greatest gift and elevated him into the rotation while his skill set tried to catch up. But as he bounces in and out of the starting lineup, consistency becomes a challenge.

(Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

How do you develop a game-day schedule when you don’t know if you’re going to wait 20 minutes before you see the floor after tip off? How does he make sure he’s revved up to go one night from the jump, then not burn himself out too early when he’s the sixth man a week later?

“I try my best to keep my routine the same,” Williams said. “I feel like the only thing that might be different is the amount of energy used in warmups, because you have to get your body warmed to ready to go if you’re coming straight onto the court, versus if you have a chance to warm up on the bench.”

Getting Williams’ energy level right is key because he’s taking on a bigger role both in guarding opposing stars and moving within the offense. The most notable difference this year has been the types of players he’s guarding, as Mazzulla will often have him start on a guard or wing before switching on to another big.

Williams is guarding the pick-and-rolls most of the time while the center hangs back on the baseline, so they often will have him in switch so he can bully a star off the ball and then jump onto a rolling big heading for the post. That helps prevent the post mismatches that hurt Boston early in the season and reduce cross-matches overall.

“In different lineups, you have to be prepared to do different things,” Williams said. “Fortunately, in the starting lineup, I’ll probably start on the best player and just switch or maintain that matchup. It’s kind of different than when you’re in the second unit and you have to do a better job of understanding who’s on the court at the right time.”

Starting Williams next to Horford has steadied Boston’s defensive rating, which ballooned for the first nine games of the season aside from an easy win over Washington and the second overtime loss to Cleveland. The Celtics had a defensive rating of 35 percent or lower in six of those first nine games, but have been above 50 percent in six of the eight consecutive games Williams has started since.

The defensive rebound rate has also stabilized a bit over this span, which is a gamble with Williams out there that is paying off in the aggregate. He gives up a height advantage most of the time, but he boxes out hard to get balls to fall into his hands more often than not. It’s all about reading everything happening on the court in real time, which is finally happening at game speed.

Maintaining awareness has been a key buzzword(s) for this team under Mazzulla, starting with knowing your personnel as a defender. Williams has always prided himself on his attention to detail with the game plan. It’s been the only way he can be himself without fouling out in five minutes.

His whole game was predicated on knowing the tendencies of the players he was guarding because he generally has to stop them on the ground. Defenders are only allowed to impose their physicality in specific ways, so Williams has to anticipate where the ballhandler or rebounder is going if he is going to decide which path they’re taking as they come together.

Now that he’s sharpened his physical and mental tools, he finally looks like he’s in control more often than not. It’s allowed him to become more unpredictable as a defender and harder to bait into fouls or mistakes. The big step forward for him has been to mix up how he defends screens, and Mazzulla has granted him more autonomy to make those decisions.

“I’m a guy that you’ll never know what coverage I’ll be in,” Williams said. “I may be switching, I may be playing in touch or drop. You’ll never know what I’ll be in. For me, it’s just whatever coach asks me to do, I’ll be prepared for it.”

One of the rewards of starting is coming into the game knowing who you’re gonna guard and who else is out there. The starting lineups don’t change as much as the second-unit rotations, and starters are announced before the game. Williams can spend the first six minutes of the game knowing exactly who he wants to guard and who he’s picking up in a switch.

But if he’s coming off the bench, he doesn’t know which opposing star is going to run the offense and how deep into the bench their coach is willing to go. There’s more unpredictability, which can offset the lower caliber of talent. For someone who often has a height or speed disadvantage, that can make it harder for him to stay a step ahead defensively.

“When you’re with the second unit, you may have the star player on the court by himself and that’s your only matchup, or maybe it’s a completely different unit,” Williams said. “With the starting lineup, you have to understand who is all out there, who has it going that night and take away that.”

When he started against Oklahoma City, he spent time guarding a red-hot Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, then picked up Aleksej Pokuševski. Going from an unstoppable finisher to a high-flying 7-footer, Williams has to play completely differently to handle such a wide range of players.

But he’s never been a clean fit anywhere in his career thus far. Williams had to carve out his space to find a place he belongs. When Rob Williams comes back sometime in the near future, it’s unclear where Grant Williams will end up. He’s playing at a level where it may make sense for Horford to move to the bench, keeping him fresh as he tries to stay healthy for another deep postseason run. White may re-enter the starting lineup as well when Boston wants to ratchet up the defensive pressure.

There are many options for Mazzulla as the season unfolds. Whatever comes next, Williams looks like he’s winning his bet.

(Top photo of Grant Williams and Alex Caruso: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)


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