Has Celtics rookie Jordan Walsh shown in summer league that he can replace Grant Williams?: Here’s what the film shows

Four years ago, the Celtics needed frontcourt help, just someone with toughness and tenacity who could play 15 minutes a night. Grant Williams was just a 20-year-old rookie who couldn’t shoot, but Brad Stevens gave him a shot anyway.

Williams ended up cracking the rotation from the jump, even appearing in every playoff game as a rookie in the Celtics’ bubble run that ended in a Game 7 loss to the Heat. He would ultimately become a knockdown shooter and key defender against some of the league’s biggest stars in the heat of the postseason. But last season, he fell out of Joe Mazzulla’s rotation and didn’t cement his spot in the lineup until the very end, another Game 7 Finals loss to the Heat.

This time it was his last game as a Celtic as Williams completed his sign-and-trade to Dallas on Wednesday. Oshae Brissett signed a minimum deal to take his place, a young vet with energy and an unreliable shot. But the Celtics also drafted Jordan Walsh, who enters the NBA in a similar situation to Williams.

When Williams arrived, he competed against Semi Ojeleye for backup minutes. Ojeleye was a wall defender who could spot up from the corner with medium results. He shot better than Williams at the time, but there was an ironic passivity to his game that didn’t take advantage of the Herculean build-up of Celtics fans dubbed the “Ojeleye Factory.” Williams’ confidence, tenacity and versatility quickly made him the team’s eighth man.

Can Walsh go that route as a rookie?

His performance in summer league has suggested there is a plausible role for him at some point this season, though it will take a lot of improvement for him to get there. The crucial development is him hitting his open 3s, and showing some confidence in taking the easy looks that come his way.

He doesn’t have much touch yet, but he doesn’t look afraid to fire the catch. His best shot of the opening weekend came off a quick pass from JD Davison as Walsh immediately fired the shot with a little bit of space and snapped the net. It was just about the most comfortable he’s looked taking a 3 all year.

When Washington ran him off the line in game two, he hit the midrange with plenty of room and didn’t just fall into the trap of taking an awkward pull-up. He had a big back-and-forth pass to the corner after luring the help defender in to open that shot, then in the fourth quarter saw Udoka Azubuike flash under the hoop and quickly step out of a shot to hit him on the money.

The rookie wall for Walsh will discourage defenses that know the scouting report on him. He’s just driving right at this point, using a crossover and hesi move at the top of the drive so he can drop a shoulder into the defender and try to pull up from float range through contact.

His size is no longer a huge asset in the NBA, and he doesn’t have much rhythm to get into those shots, so he was even in the air with them or stumbling against summer league players. Every year, fans forget how dramatic the quality of the defense is from summer league to preseason to the regular season, so don’t expect him to score through defenders anytime soon.

There were a few times where he tried to run a hole and the defense was able to get a deflection, but he has a high enough motor to keep moving to keep the play alive. There were also several moments where he tried to drive around the defender at the point of attack but wasn’t quick enough to hit that opening. He’s a keen passer on the move, but many of his attempted dimes were ball passes to bigs in close range that went through their hands or crosses that defenses could easily read before the ball was out of his hand. The fact that he’s willing to turn it over so much in an effort to grow as a playmaker is honestly a good sign from someone projected for a 3-and-D role.

So even when he does a rip-through or crossover to attack the square, he has trouble finishing. There were several plays where he tried to body the rim protector to finish through contact, but fell short or didn’t get the bad call he expected. But the upside is when he can get to his right hand and attack from the left side, his strength and length allow him to get a clean look at the rim. Just look how different it is when he attacks the middle of the floor instead of the baseline.

He is a keen passer and constantly moves throughout possession so he doesn’t become a dead end in the corners. That’s going to matter because he had been caught multiple times and struggled to get out of it, though he has shown some patience to keep his dribble alive and pass through the trap when he sees an opening.

But the Celtics drafted him for his defense, as he can bring tremendous length as a wing and even guard a little against fours. Boston sometimes put him at point guard and had him pressure the entire court, then switched when the guard would pass the ball to a cutter out of the corner. These are tough shifts to make as you have to completely change direction against someone sprinting towards you, but Walsh looks like he can make these reads.

The hard part comes when it’s time to chase guards over screens because Walsh likes to get up on ball handlers and lock them in. He defends like a bigger Derrick White, trying to push the ball up the rim and then stay glued to their hip on the drive without fail. It’s a difficult adjustment in the NBA, where every player who handles the ball is a trickier scorer than anyone you’ve ever guarded before. Walsh is similar to Williams in that regard, as they are both players who like to defend with their hands forward and then chest bump at the point of contact. He gets six fouls a night, and he’ll probably use them up.

The advantage with Walsh is that he can take risks and still recover. Just watch him try to play peek-a-boo at the top of the zone in transition, just miss an interception, then recover to shut down the drive.

Not only does he beat the dribbler to his spot to stop the drive, he then manages to jump around a screener to stay with the ball and force a miss. While his positioning is off on much of his help coverage and he doesn’t yet know how to get over screens on the perimeter, he has a natural feel for how to get on top of a driver without bumping into them. The problem will be that many players who can handle his size are much faster than he is used to.

It was one of his best attributes in college as he could basically hover right over the ballhandler with his hands out to the ball and then pull back to avoid the contact when they would try to draw the foul. Just watch how he is able to jump backwards towards this spin move and then get his hands straight up in the air without any contact.

There’s a lot to like about Walsh’s game so far, but the team drafted him knowing it will likely be a few years before he’s ready for serious minutes. Nevertheless, he can provide the defensive skills and motor skills they need at the three/four spot where Grant Williams is vacating, and he may bring something different than Brissett.

Most rookies come to summer league with a little more polish to their game, but Walsh just arrived with even more raw skills. He has a few months before training camp to get it together, but the tools are there for him to go surprisingly far in the second unit if he puts in the work.

(Photo: Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

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