BOSTON — The question — asked at Robert Williams’ introductory press conference in June — was simple enough: Who would the Boston Celtics rookie say he models his game after?
The answer is more complicated.
Williams might be best compared to fellow former Texas A&M star DeAndre Jordan — all length and fast-twitch muscle and bounce — but he’s a little shorter, a little more mobile and a little more versatile as a passer. Besides, modeling a young player’s game after DeAndre Jordan would require that player to know he will grow well past 6-foot-8, and few young players are that blessed.
So Williams chose a more realistic option.
“My big sister,” he said, smiling. “Nah, I didn’t really model my game after anyone. I just tried to add pieces from everyone’s game that I saw.”
Williams’ big sister, Bri Williams was seated in the middle of the Auerbach Center press room along with Williams’ parents Robert Jr. and Tondra, watching the proceedings. Six years Williams’ senior, Bri said she told her younger brother she wouldn’t move to Boston, but she would visit him frequently (“That’s all I wanted to hear you say,” Williams answered). A former player for Northwood High School in Blanchard, LA, Bri used to have to shoo her little brother out of her team’s layup lanes.
“Go sit down, bean,” Bri would tell Williams.
“The coach would always be like, ‘Leave him alone, let him play,” she said. “He was always on the court. Always.”
Bri is happy to claim the credit for Williams’ rise.
“I spent a lot of time outside with him,” she said. “We had a very, very good childhood — everything a kid could want, we got it. Toys, clothes, everything. But he would play with something for like two weeks, something new, then it was on the backburner. He loved basketball.
“He’s very, very, very family oriented. It scares his agent that he’s like that. I’ve never seen a kid like this. When it comes to people like, ‘Oh, you’re about to be in the NBA, you’ll be able to get this or that,’ the money and the fame? He doesn’t care about that. As long as he can play basketball, he’s okay. The only thing you can probably bribe him with and he’ll be happy with it is food. That’s it.”
Williams grew up 35 miles from Shreveport, LA in tiny Oil City, where the population is just over 1,000. According to assistant North Caddo High coach Michael Rea, Williams was known as the kid who dribbled a basketball wherever he went.
As a 6-foot-5 sophomore, Williams could already explode off the floor. By the time he sprouted into a lanky junior who didn’t even know his own wingspan, the North Caddo coaching staff began wondering whether they had a future pro on their hands.
“He could get 20 points a night just by running to the rim,” Rea said. “He liked to play a little more outside. Toward the end of his senior year, he realized — with the encouragement of Mom — the post was where he could do the most damage.”
Williams led the Rebels to four straight Final Fours in Louisiana, an accomplishment Rea said would probably never be done again. Rea recalled a second-round playoff game where tiny North Caddo didn’t have enough space to accommodate the huge crowd. Instead, they traveled 25 minutes south to a much larger Shreveport school and packed the gym. Williams started the game with a huge dunk, and from the bench, Rea looked for and found a coaching acquaintance from Baton Rouge in the crowd.
“He knew they were in trouble,” Rea said. “Dunk after dunk, block after block, it was over quick.”
Williams’ off-court issues have been well-documented — he hasn’t proven himself particularly reliable so far, and he slipped to the Celtics in the draft due to questions about his health and commitment. Per league sources, some teams questioned how a small-town kid like Williams would adapt to the NBA lifestyle.
But ask about Williams’ personality, and you get different answers. Teammates, coaches, front offices and even Celtics staffers for whom Williams’ issues with reliability have been a headache say he’s a nice kid who simply needs some direction. Per the Athletic, the Celtics assigned former Red Claws associate head coach Alex Barlow to tutor Williams as he tries to navigate his way through his first season in the NBA.
Shortly after the introductory press conference where he credited his sister for his basketball accomplishments, the 20-year-old made his way to Dorchester for a Celtics’ Shamrock Foundation event at the Epiphany School, where the team unveiled a new Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) lab.
For the students, Williams’ presence was special — after his appearance, he was mobbed by kids asking for Snapchats and autographs, and he obliged with enthusiasm. After all, he was once where they were. In Oil City, anybody with name recognition was an inspiration.
“Everybody back home, from Oil City to Vivian, all the way to Shreveport, that whole area, they supported me my whole life,” Williams said. “I’m just glad I made it for them. I’m glad they feel excited — even more excited than I feel for myself.”
Williams still keeps in touch with the players at North Caddo. The Rebels returned to the state finals this year, and Rob Wilson said they have a tall young player they hope can be the future of the program. The last time he met with the team, Williams gave the player a pair of shoes and helped motivate the team this past season.
“I find it special, a pair of old shoes, just shoes, anything that can make his day, make him want to keep working hard,” Williams said.
“(Williams) is an inspiration to the community,” Wilson said. “He’s always been a good kid. The school is just overwhelmed with joy.”
Now Williams will need to show the Celtics he’s ready to be a professional. He said many the right things (at one point, he lauded Al Horford’s professionalism and said he plans to “follow his every footstep”).
Williams’ own inspiration, however, doesn’t think motivation will be a problem.
“He just has to prove to people what he can do,” Bri said. “A lot of people sit back on him, like sitting back on him right now, as far as the 26 teams that passed him up. They are about to get a rude awakening when the season starts. Like, rude. From the person he is on and off the court. Put it like that.”