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Celtics rookie Grant Williams is making good use of screen time with youths

Boston’s forward started a virtual mentoring program during the pandemic

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Boston Celtics rookie Grant Williams smiled at the faces on his screen. Staring back at him during a Zoom meeting were six high school students from the Boston area whom he began mentoring in April. They were discussing plans for when they could finally get together for the first time in person.

“They have these ideas of what we’re going to do or funny things that could happen,” Williams told The Undefeated. “They all want to go bowling when I get back to Boston.

“I will be happy for that day.”

After the NBA suspended its 2019-20 season on March 11, Williams returned to his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, where he currently lives at teammate Kemba Walker’s house. Wanting to help others during the pandemic, Boston’s 2019 first-round pick searched for a way to extend a more personal touch.

For the 21-year-old Williams, mentorship has always been a big part of his life — his parents, grandfather, AAU basketball coach and high school basketball coach have all helped guide him. Now it was his turn to be there for others.

Kemba Walker (left) and Grant Williams (right) of the Boston Celtics react to a play during a game against the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 7 at the TD Garden in Boston.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

“I really just loved mentorship as a whole,” Williams said. “I have seen guys around the league doing it. I saw Kemba doing it with Big Brothers Big Sisters in Charlotte. When we played in Charlotte, he had 10 to 12 kids in the stands that he had been talking to and had touched their lives growing up. I wanted to do a similar thing, but in Boston and other communities.”

Williams reached out to Shauna Smith, BDA Sports Management’s vice president and chief strategy officer, who connected him to MENTOR, an organization founded in 1990 that seeks to provide supportive relationships for young people in America. The NBA has partnered with MENTOR since 2014 and has recruited thousands of mentors through public service announcements, ticket donations and special events, including one co-hosted by former President Barack Obama and Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry in 2019.

“We try to elevate mentoring so more young people get the support they need,” said Matt Meyersohn, MENTOR senior director of external affairs.

Meyersohn connected Williams with a group of six underserved African American and Hispanic teenage boys from the Boston-based Mass Mentoring Partnership: Josiris from Lawrence, Eden-Samuel from Brockton, Dante from Holyoke, Amiyr from Hyde Park, Moise from Mattapan and Dontay from Cambridge.

The first virtual meeting took place on April 15. Some of the teens were shocked that a Celtics player would be on the call.

“Is that really Grant Williams?” asked one of the teens.

One of the Grant Williams Virtual Group Mentoring Program sessions.

There was a shared awkwardness and shyness between Williams and the youngsters at first. Only two of the teens had met previously through youth basketball. But eventually the ice was broken, as they discussed what they missed from school, their favorite NBA players and why they were interested in meeting. The call lasted about an hour.

“I remember that each kid was pretty nervous or not really able to speak,” Williams said. “We had two [with the same-sounding name], so we had to figure out what we were going to call each one by nickname. We ended up calling one ‘Donut.’

“I had to stress to them the importance of being on time as well as being engaged, because some would just look around and not really pay much attention to the call or not have questions to ask. So, that first meeting kind of just established an identity for each kid.”

During the second meeting, their bond grew stronger when one of the teens revealed his grandfather had died.

“We just tried to be there for him,” Williams said. “It was definitely difficult. … So, for him to open up to tell us, we were all empathetic and were able to connect with him and worry about him on a deeper scale.”

Williams, meanwhile, has opened up on the calls about his life growing up in Charlotte, discussing how he struggled through his parents’ divorce and how his mom was upset that he turned down an Ivy League school to go to the University of Tennessee. He has also stressed education and offered advice and encouragement.

During the fourth call, the discussion revolved around two of the kids considering transferring to different high schools for basketball and academic reasons.

“If you’re transferring, make sure that the academic piece is more important than basketball,” said Williams, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Tennessee.

Williams and the teens have quickly grown close. The teens rib Williams about his clothing that they don’t deem to be hip. Two have claimed they can beat him in a one-on-one basketball game. There is also a running joke that Williams does not really live at Walker’s house since the NBA All-Star has never made an appearance on their calls.

“When my basketball coach called me about joining a mentorship group with Grant Williams, it made me feel like I believed in my potential,” Dontay said in a MENTOR press release. “From the first meeting with Grant, it [was] clear that he is so relatable and willing to share his own experiences on and off the court. I’m excited for the chance to learn from him.”

Williams has given the teens his phone number and also talks to them in an Instagram group chat.

“We’ve been doing this for four weeks and have learned a lot about each other,” Williams said. “Guys are following each other on Instagram. Hopefully, we will connect as they progress through the years, because they’re only freshmen right now.”

Before the NBA season was suspended, Williams had been making his own progress as a rookie. The 6-foot-6, 236-pound forward had appeared in 62 games, averaging 3.5 points and 2.7 rebounds in 15.6 minutes.

Williams is still hopeful the NBA will complete the 2019-20 season when it is deemed safe to do so. The Celtics, who currently own the Eastern Conference’s third-best record at 43-21, have championship aspirations.

While some NBA facilities were opened on May 8, the earliest the Celtics can open their doors in Massachusetts is May 18. Williams said he has been keeping in shape by riding an exercise bike and shooting in the backyard and at a friend’s home gym.

“I am going back to Boston whenever we are given that good to go,” Williams said. “Boston is still going through it now. We should go back when things calm down and start heading in the right direction. …

“Hopefully, we will get a chance to play against the top teams in the playoffs.”

In the meantime, Williams is enjoying the fellowship of his new friends.

“I’ve learned more about myself,” Williams said. “You don’t remember everything you went through as a 15-year-old. Looking back, being able to share my experiences and looking at them has given me the opportunity to not only help them, but help myself by learning more about how I was thinking back then.

“Hopefully, I can give inspiration to them to do better in everything they do.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.