2022 Awards Series Most Improved Player: Rob Williams III

It’s awards season at Celtics.com! We’re handing out six awards over the next week as we roll through this year’s Celtics.com Awards Series. We may not have trophies or acceptance speeches, but we do have some top-flight Celtics performances to outline. Here we go...

A rising star took off in Boston’s frontcourt this past season, as Rob Williams III soared into the conversation as one of the most feared rim protectors and explosive lob threats in the NBA.

After being elevated into the Celtics’ starting lineup, the 24 year-old center began stuffing the stat sheet and producing record-setting performances on a regular basis. In a matter of one season, he transformed from a backup big man into an All-Defensive Team selectee, making him our clear-cut choice for Most Improved Player of the year

In this first three seasons, Williams gave Celtics fans a taste of his high-flying potential. However, various injuries and frontcourt logjams prevented him from playing significant minutes.

When Ime Udoka was hired as Boston’s head coach in the summer of 2021, he emphasized how he wanted to get more use out of Williams moving forward. And so Timelord was unleashed.

Williams nearly averaged a double-double with career-high marks of 10.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.9 steals, and 2.2 blocks per game. To compare his previous season, he had averaged 8.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 0.8 SPG, and 1.8 BPG in 2020-21.

What made all the difference was Williams’ increase in playing time; he went from averaging 18.9 minutes per game in a bench role the previous season to 29.6 MPG as a starter this past season.

Williams also shot 73.6 percent from the field, which was not only a career-best mark, but also the most efficient mark in NBA history for a player with a minimum of 350 field-goal attempts. Wilt Chamberlain held the previous record with a mark of 72.7% in 1972-73.

Williams’ name found its way into the NBA record books on several other occasions throughout the season thanks to some prolific single-game performances. One of his most noteworthy efforts came against the Phoenix Suns on New Year’s Eve when he tallied 10 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, five blocks, and two steals while shooting 5-for-5 from the field, making him the first player in league history to record a five-block triple-double without missing a shot.

Nine days prior, Williams tallied a career-high 21 points on 10-of-12 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds, seven assists, to steals, and two blocks.

Along with his uptick in field-goal efficiency, Williams saw a massive improvement in his free-throw efficiency. His made 72.2 percent of his free throws after making just 61.6 percent the previous season.

Amazingly, he never missed a clutch free throw all season. He shot 12-for-12 from line in the last two minutes of games in which no team was ahead or behind by more than five points, which was the best mark of any player in the league with at least that many attempts. Not bad for a guy who entered the season with a career mark of 62.3 percent from the line.

Unfortunately, Williams missed the last quarter of the regular season due to a meniscus tear in his left knee. However, he still managed to block the third-most shots in the league, swatting 134 of the opposition’s attempts. His knee kept him sidelined for seven playoff games as well, though he still led the postseason with 38 blocks in 17 appearances.  

It’s no wonder he made his way onto the All-Defense Second Team while also finishing seventh in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.

Williams was also seventh in the league in total win shares (9.9), trailing six All-Stars in Nikola Jokic (15.2), Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.9), Joel Embiid (12.0), Rudy Gobert (11.7), Karl-Anthony Towns (10.3), and Trae Young (10.0). He finished just a hair ahead of teammate Jayson Tatum, who landed in eighth place with 9.6 win shares.

Despite missing significant time, it was still Williams’ healthiest season yet. He played 2,198 minutes in the regular season and playoffs, more than doubling his previous career high of 1,031 minutes in 2020-21.

His increased presence made all the difference for his teammates on both sides of the ball. On the offensive end, he helped to take the pressure off Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum thanks to his presence as a lob threat. On the defensive end, he helped to provide constant pressure on the opposition thanks to his elite shot-blocking ability.

Williams’ individual improvements went hand-in-hand with the team’s improvements, as the C’s went from a 36-36 postseason play-in team to a 51-31 Eastern Conference champion in a matter of one year. And at 24 years old, he’s just getting started.