Robert Williams Looked Confident in Final Scrimmage Before Return
PORTLAND, Maine — Robert Williams III will return to the Celtics line-up against the Orlando Magic on Friday, which is 12 weeks after his left knee surgery. Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania were the first to report Williams’ long-awaited return.
Williams III traveled with the Celtics on their two-week trip from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, where he trained extensively before Boston’s game against Golden State. Hopes of his return to the road faded this week as his condition faltered, but after another session in LA with coaches, Williams III showed confidence Joe Mazzulla and the coaching staff hoped to see it before bringing him back.
“When I was in LA he was playing five against five with the coaches, he was moving well.” Mfiondu Kabengele said after playing for the Maine Celtics on Thursday. “I don’t know the schedule, but according to the eye test, he moved really well. He seemed strong, he seemed confident in his movements, that’s the main thing. Once you have faith in that, the play, the feel, the touch, and so on. So I was impressed with his looks, especially when I saw him at the beginning of the training camp and how he has changed now.”
The progress over nearly an extra week of work is encouraging for the Celtics, who have yet to see him increase his minutes into 2023. Williams III, who started all 61 games he appeared in in 2021-22, is expected to leave to start the bench. Mazzulla liked the idea of eventually returning to Double Big Looks, which isn’t surprising considering last year’s starting lineup turned out to be the best in the NBA. At the moment, the team’s historic offense, which relies on distance, pace and playmaking across the board, doesn’t perfectly suit Williams III as he retires.
The game against Orlando becomes an adjustment for Williams III, who is simply getting his wind back, but also stylistically, as the Celtics transition to more off-ball action in his absence. Luke Kornet and Blake Griffins excellent as screeners and passers-by, and while Williams III also brings great vision, his screening ability leaves a lot to be desired. Boston didn’t always optimally integrate him into the offensive last year, I am Udoka noticed, and a busy off-season didn’t allow Williams III to hone his skills. The center attempted three shots from behind the arc in his first four seasons and only 3.1% of his attempts exceeded 10 feet.
Kabengele learned how to fit on offense as a rollman from Williams III, both players filling similar roles and the veteran had played in Maine early in his career. Speaking to reporters in New York, Williams III emphasized the need to be with teammates, make your voice heard and address things he sees in practice. Kabengele averages 16.8 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 3.5 APG, and 2.1 BPG for Maine while shooting 53.8% from the field.
“One of the most important things (Rob taught me) is rebounding, blocking shots, those dynamic plays on the assist side make sure you’re really seen even if you’re not the primary shooter,” Kabengele said. “You have to really hold onto the defensive lines and offensive lines and protect the color, especially with my height and athleticism. Teams shouldn’t be comfortable driving in the paint when I’m in there. That’s the most important thing he taught me to teach myself when I’m down here (in the G-League).”
Williams III’s recovery began in March when he first tore his left meniscus and chose the route that brought him back to court sooner, a removal rather than a repair operation that could have cost him up to a year. He returned within four weeks midway through the team’s first round in Brooklyn. A bruised bone cost him more time in round two against Milwaukee before pain, swelling and limited movement made him everyday for the remainder of the postseason. Williams III dealt with it into the summer, forcing him to undergo another surgery and focus on making things right. He did not regret his return last spring as he was allowed to play in the final.
His Celtics teammates also assured him of taking his time and allowed him to do so with a 22-7 start. They’ve reached new offensive heights without him, but their historic defensive performance flattened out as they dropped to eighth in defense after finishing 15th through November. Their 106.2 defensive rating led the league last season, marked by Williams III’s roving off-ball coverage in the suit, where he helped out the opposing team’s worst scorer. They finished second in forced turnovers, turning that stoppage into the league’s best late-season offensive performance. In many ways, Williams III sets Boston’s ceiling, but they’ll just wait for him to come back to himself first.
“Luke has done a good job filling in some of those minutes and getting some of his buns, so I think it’s going to be a natural progression to adapt (Rob) to just having a vertical spacer like that. ‘ Mazzulla said earlier this week. “How we play without it I think is just our distance, our shooting and five-out allows for multiple driving angles, it allows for the guys the distance to attack… (we) make sure he feels like that he’d be in great form indoors, executed defensively when he’s in practice, and then going through plays at game speed. Just do all those little things that make you feel ready.”
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