April 15, 2024

As Grant Williams starts over again with Hornets, his voice is finding a home

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford said Grant Williams talks a lot. It was meant to be a compliment, commending the former Boston Celtics big for bringing his voice to a defense that needs a leader.

Williams loves to talk, about anything and everything. It’s something people have accepted, for better or for worse. But the question that has been following Williams for some time is whether his talking is getting in the way of his career.

So far, it’s working in Charlotte. Perhaps it’s because of the familiarity with the people in the locker room. When he arrived in Boston, he knew Jayson Tatum. His cousin was dating Jaylen Brown’s friend from back home. They were familiar with him. With the Hornets, he knew LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges, who he played in high school. He recruited Brandon Miller and Tre Mann to Tennessee. There’s a familiarity there.

Williams said in Dallas, everyone was new. Regardless of how it ended, it didn’t work out.

“I think it’s not that things didn’t work. I just think that I take most of the credit down there that I should have performed better,” Williams told The Athletic before his Hornets fell to the Celtics 118-104. “I think that as much as they relied on me and everything else, I didn’t necessarily come in the most prepared. But at the same time, I do believe that I still have great relationships with everybody there and I think that those guys are bound for something special in their growth.”

But with his former Celtics teammates in town, Williams got dinner with players Sunday evening.

“The No. 1 thing I’ll say is that like, same way in Boston, you have to learn the people you’re around and continue to grow with the people you’re around,” Williams said. “I feel like the whole loud teammate or talked too much (thing) — yeah, I may talk too much. That’s probably the one thing I think is true.”

As the public tried to understand why the Mavs would trade him after being their biggest signing of the offseason a few months earlier, comments from Celtics play-by-play announcer Mike Gorman and ESPN’s Tim MacMahon suggested Williams’ penchant for running his mouth irked teammates at his first two stops in the league.

“You can’t control what people say or think and it’s never been something I tried to care about. I try my best just to care about the guys that I’m around,” Williams said. “I also try to treat everybody with respect, so it hurt a little bit. But at the same time, like, I don’t put too much weight into those reports. So I just want to let those things go and try and keep the same relationships I’ve had.”

But Williams recognized why he ended up in Charlotte and why it might be the best thing for his career. Regardless of how his teammates and colleagues in Dallas took his approach, he knew he didn’t match his talk with his play on the floor and that’s a big part of why the Mavs traded him.

When Williams first signed with Dallas, he said he hoped they would free his offensive creativity and make him the anchor of their defense. In Boston, he spent most of his time parked in the corner and crashing the glass. But he showed he could operate from the elbows handing the ball off and making smart reads against switching defenses.

Then Dallas kept him in a similar role, his shooting fell off after a strong start, and rumblings started that they could already be looking to move him. But even if it wasn’t the role he wanted, he understood why it didn’t change as much as he hoped.

“I didn’t expect anything else. Luka (Dončić) does a phenomenal job and Kyrie (Irving) and all those guys get you open looks and you just gotta knock them down,” Williams said. “And no matter if it’s on time, off time, you have to be able to knock them down if you’re a good shooter. And I thought I did a decent job, shot like 36 percent when I was there.

“But knowing the caliber of shooter I am, I’m still frustrated with myself this season. But I think that down there, I still talked, the same vocal guy. I think they were receptive, I just got to keep my performances high so I can do that.”

Now he has a new home in a familiar place, playing in the city he was born and raised, leading a team trying to find a sense of direction. Even though Ball is the (often injured) star and Miller is their exciting rookie with serious potential, Williams has been the voice of the locker room since he arrived in February.

“You gotta continue to be yourself because that’s your authentic self. I tell guys, no matter who you are, be yourself so you know who you are every single day and we can communicate with one another in the right way,” Williams said. “So that way, we can all support each other on the court, but also as brothers one day. Because we all live the same life in a way where nobody will understand what we go through. So having each other’s back is important.”

Williams finished with 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting against the Celtics. This was possibly his best performance of the season. After exiting the first quarter early with two fouls, he only got called for one more the rest of the night.

Kristaps Porziņģis caught the brunt of it as Williams left him in the dust a handful of times throughout the evening.

“I feel like I’m playing a little more aggressive on the offensive end. I’m getting the ball in different situations than I have in the past, whether it was post-ups and even just being more comfortable with the flow of the game,” Williams said. “I feel like I had a good role in Boston. I thought I had a good role in Dallas. But everyone’s a little bit different. And now I feel like I’m showing a lot of the offensive potential I have.”

Porziņģis said he could empathize with Williams’ journey. A few years earlier, the Mavs brought him in to reshape their franchise and help Dončić get to the next level. They didn’t jell on the floor, Porziņģis was hurt, and Dallas dispatched him to a rebuilding club that needed help finding an identity.

Porziņģis said he believes Williams will feel better than he did in Dallas even if he’s not playing for a contender.

“When my situation was happening, I thought Washington would be a decent place for me before even the trade happened,” Porziņģis said. “But it was definitely a good situation for me to bounce back now from that time in Dallas, which kind of left like a bad reputation for me a little bit. … And I think in Grant’s situation, it can also help him to build his game back up a little bit and he’s already feeling good. He’s having a bigger role and he’ll be good.”

On this night, Williams was good. He was the player he showed he could be early last season when he figured to be a key part of the rotation and Al Horford’s potential long-term replacement. But then he started turning the ball over, shooting poorly, and fell out of the rotation.

The Mavs saw his postseason play and bet he could be that guy again, but it didn’t work out. Now that he’s in Charlotte, he’s trying to prove himself yet again.

“He always plays tough, but today he had a little extra. Like, he had a chip on his shoulder a little bit today, I felt like,” Porziņģis said of Williams. “He got a couple of good moves on me, which pissed me off, to be honest, a little bit. He had a good game.”

Now Williams can be in the middle of it all. He’s not just spacing to the corner anymore. He’s making plays. He’s guarding the stars and he’s going at them. But he’s still having fun, especially when he’s going against his old teammates.

“But (Tatum) and (Derrick) White constantly called me a hack and I’m always like, ‘Y’all just don’t get called ’cause you’re superstars,’ ” Williams said after the game. “I think he was saying I was fouling KP and I was like, ‘Hey, man, you fouled (Aleksej Pokusevski) and Brandon (Miller) two possessions in a row and they didn’t call it because you’re light-skinned and you think you’re pretty.”

“Grant always got some s— to say,” Tatum said after he just outscored Williams by two points, tying Sam Hauser for a team-high 25 on the night. “I’ll just say that’s my brother for life and it’s cool. I don’t talk trash at all, but if it’s somebody close with that I know, like today and Grant, I like to have fun out there. So it’s always good to see him, competing against him. So we just had some fun out there.”

Despite the ups and downs he faced in Boston and in his brief time in Dallas, Williams said he’s now focused on gratitude, happy to be somewhere that can give him the room and responsibility he needs to grow.

“I don’t want to ever talk bad about the places that I’ve been. I’ve been thankful for every experience,” Williams said. “Without Dallas, I wouldn’t have not only the contract that I have but also the potential here in Charlotte to be around friends, family and help a team get some success.

“The same with Boston, they helped me become the player that I am today. So I’m thankful for both experiences and try to continue to learn and continue to be myself throughout this league.”

(Top photo of Grant Williams and Kristaps Porziņģis: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)