At least Robert Williams recognizes the height of the ladder he’s about to climb.
“Coach just threw me out there,” the rookie center said of getting a rare chance to play with veterans during Sunday night’s exhibition win over Charlotte. “There was no time to really think about situations like that. The most important factors are learning how to play rather than learning style of play. Just how to read through.”
With Al Horford out for the night with a sprained right wrist, Williams made his Garden debut midway through the third quarter. He joined a unit that also included Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier.
Williams cut to the rim for his first Garden basket off an Irving pass and made three big plays in the last 16 seconds of the victory over the Hornets — first switching to block a 3-point attempt by Malik Monk and then feeding Guerschon Yabusele down the other end for a game-sealing basket.
On Charlotte’s next possession, Williams switched again to force a Devonte’ Graham pass out of the corner, with the result a hurried 3-point miss by Miles Bridges at the buzzer.
These are examples of what Williams can accomplish. His start as a Celtic — that missed practice the first day of summer league mini-camp — now makes Celtics types smile quietly. But it’s obvious why they were pleasantly surprised by his availability at pick No. 27 last June.
“He’s a pretty unique guy when you’re that size and can switch like that,” said Brad Stevens. “His effort level all the way through, everything he’s done since he’s been here, has been really good. We’re excited about the way he’s making progress. You can see there’s a lot there potentially.”
“Potentially” is the most important word in that statement, with Williams barely on the bottom rung of his career.
But teammates have delighted in what they see — a player eager not only to make amends for some early mistakes, but with some obvious NBA-level tools.
“Very impressed by his energy level,” said Al Horford. “You can already tell he’s very committed to doing the right things. Here early, working extra, really getting after it. On the defensive end what really impresses me is his ability to have impact on the ball. His ability to contest and change people’s shots. That’s a huge strength of his already. Big reason why it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets more playing time because of that. He’s learning and will keep learning.”
One lesson, though it’s been entertaining to teammates to watch Williams attempt to block every shot, will be timing and judgment.
“Yeah. It’s fun to see that,” said Horford. “He’s jittery, but he’ll start to figure that out. It’s nice to see though when he’s changing shots. That wingspan and everything, he gets in people’s way.”
In that respect, Williams has fit into his team’s defensive principles almost immediately. Like Semi Ojeleye last year, Williams has quickly shown an ability to pick up all sizes and speeds of players, including guards like Graham and Monk.
“Just stay down and stick to our principles. Coach told us to switch everything, stay on your feet and be the second man to leave the floor. That’s what I tried to do,” said Williams. “I feel like towards the end of college (Texas A&M), I started to switch a little bit more so I got used to it. It’s a different level of guarding here, but I was switching a little bit in college.
“It’s just something you have to be prepared to do,” he said. “(Stevens) said out of the timeout, ‘one through five we’re switching.’ You just have to be mentally ready for something like that.”
Thus far all Williams’ coaches and teammates have is a small sample size. But for now that’s enough.
“I’m not necessarily amazed. I think that you can see how long his arms are and how athletic he is as a young guy,” said Irving. “But I think what’s really interesting to me is how smart he is as a basketball player. He fits very well with our system.
“You think about little things that happen throughout the game and think about the sealing play where Rob gets the block and he passes to (Yabusele) — those little things right there just show you how well he fits in with being a Boston Celtic. He just makes the huge play and then passes to Guerschon. He could have wind-milled it or done some crazy thing probably. But he passed to Guerschon to seal the game and I know that felt good for him and the rest of us.”