Robert Williams has made a name for himself in his young NBA career by making plays with his leaping ability.
The 6-foot-9 Celtics center has a 40-inch vertical, which has helped him reach 12 feet in the air to make blocks in an NBA game. Williams broke out this season, his first full season as a starter. He recorded 2.2 blocks in 29.6 minutes per game, ranking second in blocks per game across the league.
Former Celtic Satch Sanders, who won eight titles in his 13 seasons playing in Boston, compared Williams to a teammate of his and one of the greatest players in defensive history: Bill Russell.
When asked in a recent interview with Andscape’s Marc J. Spears, Sanders shared the greatest athletic play he ever saw from Russell is something Williams could accomplish.
“Three blocked shots in one defensive possession,” Sanders said of a play Russell once made. “This young man [Robert] Williams, with the Celtics now, he has that ability. But I don’t know whether he can do this. You have to be driven a little bit. Russell blocked a shot in the air after the shot went up. Then he blocked another shot on the other side of the rim. Then the ball went to the foul line. A guy tried to take a little jump shot, and he blocked that. Three shots.”
Russell has often been regarded as one of the best – if not the best – shot blockers in NBA history. Unfortunately for Russell, the NBA didn’t start recording blocked shots until 1973, four years after the Celtics legend retired.
But several NBA players from the 1960s have shared stories of Russell’s defensive prowess. Sanders recalled the first time he watched Russell play, which was at a college all-star game at Madison Square Garden. Sanders, who was in high school at the time, watched Russell impose his will defensively on another future Celtic teammate of his.
“Russell was laughing at [Tommy] Heinsohn because the first time USF played Holy Cross, Heinsohn was trying to be tough,” Sanders told Spears. “When the referee was getting ready to throw the ball up, boom, he caught Russell in the body. Heinsohn scored about six or eight points. Russ chased Heiney down all over. One time, Heinsohn shot from the corner and Russell went out and grabbed the shot out of the air. He just played his ass off because Heinsohn had tried to bully him. It was a mistake.
“Then, at the dinner, Heinsohn comes in the room and Russell says, ‘Hey, good to see you, the Holy Cross terror!’ You know how Russell can laugh. That was the first time I thought, ‘Damn, that’s some cold s—.’ Every shot that Heinsohn tried, he’d get up. This man was on it. I saw some serious defense being played, chasing guys down, grabbing their s— out of the air. Russell was young. He was angry because people picked players over Russell even though USF [went] undefeated two years straight.”
Williams and the 2022 Celtics are trying to etch their name alongside the likes of Sanders, Russell, and Heinsohn. Boston’s currently tied 2-2 in the NBA Finals against Golden State.
Sanders, who played power forward, named two perimeter players as his favorites on the Celtics, but told Spears why Williams is important to this Boston team.
“I like Jaylen a lot. I like the combination of Jaylen and Smart. Those are my favorite players,” Sanders said. “I’d love to see all the guys I like having reached their potential. One of the keys, of course, is a young man [Robert] Williams, if he gets a little bit more offense. Sometimes, he’s 4, 5 feet away from the hoop and you pass it out. I hear the media people talking about how wonderful it is you pass the ball out for a 3-point shot. I think there needs to be an impact inside, too.”
Williams has dealt with an injury for the entire postseason after having surgery to heal a torn meniscus in his left knee in late March. The injury has affected Williams’s play through the Celtics’ run to the Finals forcing him to miss six games and making him look limited in several others.
But Williams is starting to leave his mark in the 2022 NBA Finals. In Game 3, he had eight points and 10 rebounds while making several hustle plays to record four blocks and three steals in 26 minutes to help the Celtics win. He looked just as stellar in the Game 4 loss, scoring seven points, grabbing 12 rebounds, dishing out four assists, blocking two shots, and recording a steal in a playoff-high 31 minutes.
It’s starting to look like the Celtics will need Williams’s presence in the paint in order to claim their 18th title, which would be the most in NBA history. The Celtics will take on the Warriors again on Monday in San Francisco for Game 5, where the winner will move just one win away from becoming champions.
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