How Celtics’ Grant Williams used his big breakout to teach rookies about mental health

In the 2022 NBA playoffs, Grant Williams made headlines like a meme stock, but his trajectory suggests he should have staying power. Well before the Boston Celtics forward played a starring role in Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks, he established himself as one of the league’s most reliable supporting characters. He arrived at training camp leaner and lighter on his feet, but sturdy enough to hold his ground against behemoths. Throughout the regular season, when the ball found him on the perimeter, he shot it with conviction and improved accuracy.

In stories about his ascendance, Williams has pointed to a variety of factors. Based on conversations with Celtics president Brad Stevens and coach Ime Udoka, Williams knew exactly what his team needed from him. He hired a chef and got to work, watching film and doing lateral-quickness drills.

In July, speaking to a room full of young players at the Rookie Transition Program in Las Vegas, Williams said that something else went into it: His work with a mental health professional.

Williams connected with performance coach Russ Rausch, who founded the mental training company Vision Pursue, through Celtics assistant coach Joe Mazzula. He encouraged the rookies to make a similar investment, especially if they aren’t comfortable talking to someone affiliated with their team. 

Mental health is “probably the No. 1 most important thing in the league, more so than even your physical health,” Williams said in an interview.” He said that your body can’t perform at its peak “if your mind isn’t right.” He specifically wanted to give Rausch credit for helping him with confidence.

The NBA launched its mental health initiative in 2018 and introduced the RTP panel on the subject in 2021. “One of the central tenets of the Mind Health program is the effort to reframe a conversation around mental health as being one that is on a continuum,” Jamila Wideman, the league’s senior vice president of player development, said. Discussions of stress, anxiety and illness need to be balanced with discussions about “wellness and proactive activities.”

The league wanted Williams on the panel because of a talk he’d given weeks earlier in New York. On the afternoon of the NBA Draft, he and Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton spoke to green-room invitees. Williams said he tried to calm their nerves, prepare them for the night and give them an idea about how their lives were about to change. He mentioned that success brings its own challenges; when your name is in the news for getting into it with Draymond Green in the NBA Finals, you need strategies to stay levelheaded.

While Williams is the epitome of a positive-vibes guy, he talks about the hard parts of adjusting to NBA life matter-of-factly. “You’re always on your own,” he said. “You’re not prepared for that, typically.” After practice, teammates go home to their families instead of hanging out in a dorm. “There’s going to be times in the league where you feel like it’s you against the world.”

For a mental health program that Wideman said is aimed at “getting out of this binary that you’re either ill or you’re healthy,” Williams is an ideal advocate. Wideman called him “an incredible storyteller” with a good sense of humor and a willingness to be vulnerable.

Twice in Vegas — the RTP split the rookie class into two groups, so each session had to be repeated — the 23-year-old Williams walked through the highs and lows of his three years with the Celtics. Six weeks in, he was shooting 0 for 25 from 3-point range, at which point he was thinking “about how my career was going to shake out, if I was as good of a shooter as I thought I was,” Williams said. He did his best to stay positive, and he played a significant role in the playoffs, only to find himself in and out of the rotation the next year, the shine of a promising rookie season having worn off.

“You’re getting death threats from fans and all this other stuff,” Williams said. “And that’s hard to go through.”

Williams told the rookies that he saw “those same people change their mentality” in Year 3, and that sticking around in the league is largely about being “mentally strong enough to improve,” he said. Struggles and slumps are inevitable; putting them in perspective is a skill. 

“You see how it’s turned out,” he said. “Not every story is like mine. But to be able to say you came out on the other side is amazing.”

Some players might take to therapy and meditation. Others might find performance coaching helpful. Williams said he told the players in Vegas that they might have to try different things in order to figure out what makes them happy and confident. 

“He doesn’t walk in the room and present as somebody or I think want to be perceived as someone who has all the answers,” Wideman said. “Grant is the first to ask guys questions when he gets in there. He’s the first to bring them and invite them into what looks like more of a conversation.”

Three years earlier, when he was in the rookies’ shoes, Williams “raised his hand very clearly as a leader,” Wideman said. Not everybody is going to be as involved with NBA and NBPA programs as Williams is. Not everybody is going to go on a mental health podcast and talk about how he lights a candle before meditating. During the panel, though, Williams said that he wasn’t always proactive about his mental health. When he would disconnect, that only “made it worse,” he said. 

Williams recalled telling the rookies that “there’s a lot of guys here that are very anxious right now that will never confess it.” If and when they are ready, though, he’d be happy to continue the conversation. 

“I try to make myself the most available teammate or the most available person in the league,” Williams said. “So I always say, ‘You want my number? Like, come after the meeting, you can call me anytime.’ It’s one of those things. We’re all going through it at some point.”