Will the career of Robert Williams III of the Celtics be cut short by an injury?



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I hope Robert Williams III thinks it was worth it.

I sincerely hope he doesn’t regret returning to the basketball court for the Boston Celtics four weeks after meniscus surgery. Yes, it was the playoffs and the Celtics were the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The way they played defense in the second half of the season carried over into the playoffs. This team had a legitimate shot at winning the franchise’s 18th NBA championship.

The Celtics ended up losing to the Golden State Warriors in the Finals after passing the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat in the previous playoffs. But by the time they hosted the Bucks for Game 1 of a semifinal series, Williams had already returned to play in two games. He had a 4-6 week recovery window when the meniscus injury was diagnosed on March 29. Williams’ first game back for the Celtics came on April 23 for Game 3 of the first round against the Brooklyn Nets – 26 days after the injury.

Heavy Sean Dennery reported on Tuesday that Williams will have to miss all of training camp, and probably several weeks of the regular season. Williams needs arthroscopic surgery on his left knee – the one in which the damaged part of his meniscus was removed in the spring.

This isn’t the first setback Williams has suffered since returning to the playoffs. He collided with Giannis Antetokounmpo and suffered what was later diagnosed as a bone bruise. Williams has missed the last four games of this series and was back in the starting lineup for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

It was more than a bone bruise that got Williams in trouble against the Heat and Warriors. The day before the Celtics were eliminated at home in Game 6 of the Finals, a conversation with Williams was published by Yahoo Sports. He revealed that his knee was filling up with fluid so often against the Heat that he stopped draining it and figured out how to play with the discomfort.

“It means a lot to me,” Williams told Yahoo Sports. “It’s difficult to manage. When I’m there, the adrenaline and the energy takes over, so I don’t really think about it during games, but it certainly affects me a lot.

It was the rigor he was willing to put his body through for a chance to be NBA champion. Unlike most key contributors, Williams averaged fewer minutes during the playoffs than he did during the regular season because there was only so long he would be able to play on the ground. But when he was there, he most certainly made his presence felt. Rebounding, switching, lobbing and blocked shots – it was necessary for the Celtics to make that run. In their Game 6 loss to the Warriors, he went 4 for 8 from the field with 10 points and five blocks. Without Williams in the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s a good chance it’ll be the Heat taking on the Warriors in the NBA Finals, but it came at a huge cost.

The 2021-22 season was Williams’ standout performance. He was a second-team All-Defense, and the way he played on that end of the court is a template for any big man trying to be an NBA contributor with a limited offensive package.

He signed a four-year, $54 million contract extension with the Celtics just before the start of last season. It was quite a come-up for him, having started in just 13 games in four seasons. In March, that contract was a bargain, and now in September, it may be the only long-term NBA contract the 24-year-old Williams will ever sign.

Hindsight might still be 20/20, but it’s hard to ignore that, forget the high end six weeks, Williams didn’t even make it four full weeks post-op. In less medically advanced times, Dwayne Wade had his meniscus deleted following a 2002 injury to Marquette that allowed him to return to the court more quickly, and he blamed this on knee issues that plagued him throughout his NBA career.

While the procedure is far more advanced 20 years later, Williams’ meniscus was still not fully repaired. This operation could have kept him until the 2023-24 season. I understand why neither side would have wanted to go this route if it could have been avoided, but could a little more care have Williams’ left knee in a better place? Obviously, there’s no way to get an absolute answer to that question, but now the Celtics will likely start the 2022-23 season without one of their best defensemen.

If he doesn’t regret coming back for the playoffs, there’s not much the rest of us can say. But if Williams’ best proves to be last season, his career will be remembered more for question marks than accomplishments.

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