In looking back on Draft Night 2020, Ainge’s modus operandi was clear: find guys who help us win now. Even if a trade never materialized to add veteran presence to this roster, Ainge’s choices signaled a willingness to prioritize immediate impact with less-dynamic, long-term upside over any high-ceiling prospect still at the start of their trajectory. With Aaron Nesmith going 14th to Boston and Payton Pritchard 26th, positions and skills of need clearly factored into the equation.
This is not to say that Nesmith or Pritchard were definitively not the best players available when the Celtics were on the clock. But the picks were, for a team with a sturdy top-six, designed to be somewhat risk-averse. There were no long-term upside plays after unproven track records, like Robert Williams and Romeo Langford in recent drafts. There were no personality gambles or questionable locker room fits. In the end, this was a draft where the safest path was traveled.
After a defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat, the impact of shooting role players on winning could not be more evident. Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro were impactful, even on their cold nights. Their spacing and threat of movement allowed a two-level scorer like Jimmy Butler to feast at the rim and the offense to unlock multiple layers. The Celtics, middle-of-the-pack in 3-point attempts and without a true specialist in that regard, may have found the man to fulfill that role in Nesmith.
In the fourteen games he played last year, Nesmith got up 8.2 treys per game, drilling an absurd 52.2 percent of them. It’s a hot streak, to be certain, and is a vast improvement from Nesmith’s freshman numbers a season prior of 33.7 percent on 5.5 attempts. Still, the sophomore campaign was incredibly impressive. He had four games with at least seven makes from deep, including two 30-point outings.
Coming from Vanderbilt, Nesmith’s evaluation and transition to the pros is made more comfortable by the proof of usage in NBA-style screening actions. Vanderbilt’s coach, NBA legend and former G-League coach Jerry Stackhouse, hasn’t been shy about utilizing 3-point shooters as the fulcrum of his offense. Vanderbilt was poor this year (in large part due to a season-ending injury for Nesmith after only 14 games) but were 3rd in the SEC in 3-point attempts. The offense was built around shooting.
Stackhouse utilized Nesmith coming off screens a bunch — floppy screens, elevator screens, corner exit screens, Spain pick-and-rolls. Aaron’s proficiency in these areas was eye-popping: according to Synergy Sports player tracking data, he shot 25-of-49 (51 percent) off screens. No player in Division I shot that high a percentage off more than 35 attempts. The fact Nesmith did it in only 14 games is more impressive than worrisome. Tune out the small sample size argument; he took more off screens in 14 games than most guys did the whole year.
The Spain pick-and-roll, featured in the video above, is most exciting for how it fits within Boston’s offensive framework. These are shots that require a ton of hip movement and changing of body angles to square to the rim. Nesmith does almost a full-180 to get himself from screening to firing.
Assuming Brad Stevens keeps his offense relatively similar to last season, the C’s will utilize these cuts up the gut for scorers. Jaylen Brown was most frequently featured here, breaking off their typical motion offense to zip up the middle off a screen from Daniel Theis:
Imagining Nesmith in this role is not difficult to do. The playbook can open up for Stevens, who now has a legitimate threat to design shooting sets for. Another player who benefits most from this: screeners. Nesmith has been such a reliable shooter at Vanderbilt that his cuts off screens draw so much attention that slips and rim dives are open for bigs. In any guard-to-guard screening actions, a staple of Stevens’ offense, we may see more open slips as switching defenses struggle to toggle responsibilities.
The specialty shooting Nesmith provides better live up to the hype because, frankly, there isn’t much else to his game. He’s a solid defender who understands where to be. He tries, moves his feet, and has an NBA-ready frame. He’ll compete on the glass and is strong enough not to be posted by anyone. With a 6’10” wingspan, it’s likely he checks 3’s and 4’s at his peak. To expect an ascent into above-average individual defender would be overzealous, though.
Offensively, he’s not a guy who puts the ball on the floor nor should Celtics fans want him to be. His 6.9% assist rate is amongst the lowest of high-usage drafted players in recent memory. When he is forced to put the ball on the floor and drive, there’s very little nuance or reading of help defenders that goes on. He gets tunnel vision on drives and either throws up a contested layup or a pull-up jumper. It’s an area he must improve in regards to shot selection and proficiency on finding the right outlet. It’s unreasonable to think he will ever have facilitation chops, though.
My long-term comparison for Nesmith has always been in the Reggie Bullock mold: a solid, high-30’s percent 3-point shooter who drills shots off screens and is big enough not to be a defensive liability. Don’t put him in the pick-and-roll or have higher expectations for his usage. There’s not much ceiling left to hit other than seeing him become a mid-40’s percent 3-point shooter. There’s fit within what the Celtics need, there’s a good kid who can contribute earlier in his career thanks to the specialty role he fills. It’s a very safe, low ceiling pick.
The same can be said for Pritchard, a gym rat and workout fanatic who impresses with his stationary ball handling workouts. Last I checked, there’s little to no value in dribbling in place during an NBA game.
In all seriousness, Pritchard brings a competitiveness to the backcourt that likely reminds Ainge of himself. Growing up in Oregon, Pritchard won four state championships in high school and was described by his coach as “a one-percenter in the whole world” from the neck up. His mental fortitude, work ethic, competitive drive and perseverance despite mundane athletic traits invoke images of Ainge’s face lighting up like the Chipotle worker just asked him if he wanted extra guac.
Since leaving high school, Pritchard’s winning ways have not slowed. He started 140 games at Oregon, and seemingly got better every year. His biggest statistical leap came this year, his senior season, jumping from 12.9 points to 20.5 per game, raising his 3-point percentage to 41.5 percent while still converting on more than half of his twos. Most impressively, the Ducks won 105 games during his tenure, a number that would’ve been higher had the NCAA Tournament not been cancelled. The added games would’ve given Pritchard the clear ascent to become second on Oregon’s all-time scoring list.
While the accolades are impressive, Pritchard is a subpar athlete who will be 23-years-old in January. Picking him 26th means one of two things: the Celtics think he’ll be able to step into a meaningful backup role at the point right away, or they believe there’s a lot of meat left on the bone in terms of upside. I’m less optimistic about the latter, so Ainge better be correct about the former.
The common mistake made in NBA circles is to believe that high character and work ethic mean a player is going to continually get better, therefore raising their ceiling. If working hard was all it took, there’d be many guys still playing in this league. Talent evaluations on Pritchard focus on the polish he already holds, the experience hitting big shots he’s already proven, the savvy as a pick-and-roll scorer he possesses at 23. I’ve yet to read one account of Pritchard that expects him to evolve into a multi-layered, starting-caliber point guard.
But Pritchard fits the mold Ainge is looking for: competitors, shooters and positional needs for Boston. His track record of success wherever he’s been certainly proves the competitive juices flow strongly. He made 42.5 percent of his 120 catch-and-shoot attempts at Oregon this year, so he can play off-ball in ways many other late first-round names on the board haven’t proven in volume. He’s an efficient pick-and-roll scorer and creator for others, which could allow him to play the Brad Wanamaker role in Boston.
I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade. The Celtics deftly navigated a challenging draft landscape. The lack of trade-down movement at the top kept Boston out of the top-10 and at the back of the lottery. Grabbing Yam Madar at 47 was a sweet international draft-and-stash selection. I’m really high on Madar becoming a functional, impactful rotation player in three years. Flipping pick 30 to Memphis for a future pick when, in all reality, it would have caused a logjam on our roster was excellent.
Despite the lack of rain, its hard to focus on the sunshine. Many, including myself, saw some other names continue to slip in the draft, or others at positions we ranked higher than Pritchard or Nesmith. With the star power already in tact and the infrequency of first round picks being positive-impact role players on title teams, it felt like the time to try at least one swing for the fences and at least one long-term play that can develop behind this core.
For better or for worse, the Celtics didn’t opt to take that strategy. It’s certainly the safer course. Only time will tell if that’s the best road to travel.