Even when he was 13, Grant Williams could suss out the right angle from a distance.
Williams was a theater kid with a scientific mind, a musician, and a math whiz. He could have excelled in many vocations, but stubbornly insisted on using his intelligence to turn his chubby, 6-foot-5 physique into an advantage in basketball.
When Brian Field, then the basketball coach at Providence Day, a North Carolina high school renowned for academics and sports, first met with Williams and his parents about attending the school, Field offered a suggestion.
“I just said, ‘Look, at your age, if you wanted to repeat the eighth grade, you would end up being the top player in North Carolina in that class behind,’” Field recalls. “And he said, ‘You know, Coach, I hear you. I just want to try to be the top player in the grade that I’m currently in.’”
That grade included an athletic marvel on the other side of the state, Bam Adebayo. Despite growing up in Pinetown, North Carolina, a rural town of just over 100 people, Adebayo was creating a name for himself through his explosive hops, quick feet, and endless motor.
Adebayo’s 6-foot-8 frame oozed with possibilities; Williams’s tweener status, meanwhile, limited his hype. “It was like a tale of two players,” says Kevin Ligon, Williams’s AAU coach. “Bam was the athletic beast, you can’t stop him. And Grant was more so the virtuoso, the maestro that directed everything.” Adebayo was pegged as a potential All-Star. Williams didn’t even rank in the top 100 high school prospects.
Ten years later, Williams and Adebayo are facing off in the Eastern Conference finals, where Williams’s Celtics have a 3-2 lead over Adebayo’s Heat. No one could have guessed how their careers would dovetail. In fact, few would have guessed that Williams would be in the NBA.
Williams is smart enough to understand his own limitations, and as a result, he’s carved out a role in the NBA as a strong, switching defender with a sweet stroke. But he was also confident and fearless enough to see beyond them. “Some people can’t even face the dragon, so they never will slay it,” Ligon says. “So, I think that with Grant, he is not fearful of the dragon at all.
“He tips his hat if somebody makes a bucket. But you know what? He’s going to come back and guard him, and try to do something different the next time. He’s not going to be fearful of getting scored on.”
As a 13-year-old, Williams started to hone his understanding of angles and how to leverage his strength against older, taller competition. That tool would come in handy when he abruptly stopped growing.
“Part of the reason we ended up getting where we ended up his senior year, nationally ranked,” Field says, “[was] because as a young freshman, he was thrown into the starting lineup and didn’t have a choice.”
Instead, he learned to use what Ligon describes as a photographic memory not to linger on being beat, but to process and adjust.
That’s what happened four years later, in the third quarter of the 2016 North Carolina state championship game between Adebayo’s favored High Point Christian Academy and Providence Day. In the third quarter, Adebayo cut baseline, dunked on Williams, and drew a foul, cutting Providence Day’s lead to 34-24.
Just two minutes later, Williams was face-to-face with Adebayo in transition. Throughout the game, Williams had stifled Adebayo by waiting just below the free throw line and guessing correctly that he would fake left and drive right. With a full head of steam, Adebayo crashed into Williams. The whistle blew, giving Adebayo his fourth foul.
It was a callback to the first quarter, when Williams had stopped Adebayo in transition, sussed out an in-and-out dribble move and coaxed him into air-balling a quick baseline jumper. A few possessions later, Adebayo posted up and Williams, a foot away, closed off the baseline, took an elbow to the chest, and blocked a right-handed layup. A few possessions later, Adebayo posted Williams up on the left block and traveled.
Williams was responsible for drawing all four of the fouls that kept Adebayo at bay, while Providence Day cruised to victory.
The two would face off twice more the following year, in college. Adebayo joined a stacked Kentucky team, while Williams ended up at Tennessee, an SEC rival. Williams won the first matchup, and helped to hold Bam to seven points in the second, a Wildcats rout. But the flickers of the technique Williams has used against Adebayo, both now and then, trace back to that high school matchup.
Williams still meets him at the free throw line. He sticks his chest out and bumps Adebayo when he tries to elbow his way inside, but he otherwise keeps his distance, not allowing Adebayo to get a feel for Williams’s body in the post.
Adebayo is more polished now, swishing the same jumper he air-balled in high school. But he still hesitates to be aggressive against the shorter Williams.
In the first quarter of Game 5, he glided past Jaylen Brown for a layup and attempted a crowded jumper over Jayson Tatum, but barely looked at the rim when he caught the ball against Williams. Instead, Adebayo watched for open cutters before pitching the ball back to the perimeter for dribble handoffs.
One of the few times he opted to shoot was in the second quarter. Adebayo sized up Williams, dribbled to his left, and pump-faked before missing a 10-footer.
“I thought he was too hesitant,” remarked Jeff Van Gundy, providing commentary for ESPN during the game. “Williams is giving him a huge cushion. Rise up and shoot it.”
This is the gift of Williams’s preparation: He’s able to predict Adebayo’s moves and beat him to the punch. In Adebayo’s case, the hesitation has occasionally metastasized into decision-making paralysis.
Williams, Ligon says, “gets in your head by making you figure out how to score against him, not grabbing the ball and trying to take it out of bounds real quick, or bumping into you. He’s not dirty. He just follows the rules and gets annoying in his own little way.”
Getting closer to the rim against a defender like Williams is a fight. The girth that once turned off scouts helps Williams match up against bigger players. “The body composition I have, it’s the difference between basketball and football and how physical you can be,” Williams recently told Sports Illustrated. “It helps me a little bit.”
For offensive players, consistently matching his relentlessness is half the battle.
“Sometimes, when a guy’s just physically stronger, even though they can play [up] two or three possessions,” Ligon says, “they go back to their old habits, and Grant knows that.”
The Celtics have a trove of physical defenders to put on Adebayo. Robert Williams III has been Adebayo’s primary defender when healthy, with Al Horford and Daniel Theis backing him up. Brown and Tatum have gotten a few looks while Marcus Smart has picked him up on switches. No one player stops Adebayo. The cumulative impact has been reminiscent of the state championship game: transition drives stopping short at the free throw line, post-up opportunities gone ignored, kickout passes to the perimeter.
Adebayo’s selflessness is a feature for Miami, but Boston’s physicality has turned it into a bug. With Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry hobbled and bottled up, Tyler Herro out the past two games, and the Heat struggling from beyond the arc, it would have behooved Adebayo to call his own number in Game 5. But he took just 10 shots through the first three quarters.
In the fourth quarter, Adebayo snapped out of his indecisiveness, attacking Grant Williams in transition twice in a row, then pulling the same short fadeaway move on Horford, fueling a run that briefly gave Miami life.
After the 13-point loss, a reporter asked Adebayo if he needed to call more upon himself. “Yeah,” he responded, “I do. They’re banged up. Dudes is going through shooting struggles. So yeah, put it on me.”
Over the years, Adebayo has expanded his range, giving him more space to beat Williams off the dribble; Williams has shed weight, improving his quickness. If Adebayo can counter his old rival with new moves, it puts the onus on Williams to once again integrate Adebayo’s improvements into his encyclopedic brain and keep evolving.
“As the years have gone on, it’s gotten more and more fun to play against him because of how much he’s improved,” Williams told SI. “How much he continually wants to get better and improve his shot. I’m really just excited to play him throughout my career.”