After following a red-hot Summer League with an effective preseason, the games that actually count have hit Aaron Nesmith like a brick wall. He’s opened the young season without a made basket in his three outings. None. Zilch. Zero. Ten shots attempted and ten shots that didn’t find the bottom of the net, and as a consequence, he’s seen DNP - Coach’s Decision designations in each of Boston’s last two games. Hardly a quick start for the 2020 first-rounder.
It’s easy to surmise that this minutes reduction has largely stemmed from his inability to hit a shot. When you can’t put the ball in the basket, you’re going to see less minutes on a team suffering from repeated scoring droughts. But has it really been that bad? Let’s pour through some film and find a diagnosis.
Some of his shots have looked particularly awkward, mainly whenever he’s moving with the ball in his hands. Perhaps after opening up his game with a little more shot creation in exhibition play, he’s now struggling to reign it back in for his role in this offense. Alternatively, maybe he doesn’t quite trust himself enough to let loose a little bit? Either could be true with this step-back he launched against Houston, which might have been a great look (Theis bought it!), if his legs didn’t seemingly turn into Jello.
Almost all of his shots have come from behind the three-point arc, which is understandable considering he’s Aaron Nesmith. He’s only taken one solitary attempt from two-point range, and frankly it probably should have been a three as well. I don’t know what his plan was here, and I don’t think he knew either. Julius Randle is not an intimidating enough defender to pass up a corner three with this much space!
By and large, though, the thing about Nesmith is that he’s simply just missing. It’s really that simple. Of his 10 missed shots, five or six of them are quality looks in which he just didn’t find the range. These really are the kinds of shots you want Aaron Nesmith taking.
Maybe there’s more to the equation, though. Perhaps he’s struggling to navigate Udoka’s switch-heavy defensive scheme. Is there something concerning in his defensive tape?
Well, not really! There are smaller issues, of course. He’s had the occasional trouble navigating screens, which is to be expected from a 22-year-old learning his second defensive scheme in as many pro seasons. He loses track of Eric Gordon here while glancing behind him with his back already turned to the play. That’s a very 22-year-old mistake.
By and large though, Nesmith has looked significantly steadier on the defensive side of the ball than he did for much of his rookie year. The best compliment you can give him might be that you don’t notice him nearly as much. He’s out of position less often and clearly feeling more comfortable as an individual and as a communicator. And as always, he’s not afraid to throw his body around. When all those factors come together, it’s not hard to see how he can be a legitimate plus as a wing defender.
I particularly like this little play here. The Knicks run a pick-and-roll with Derrick Rose and Mitchell Robinson, and force the switch, leaving Dennis Schröder mismatched against the seven-foot Robinson. Nesmith recognizes this, Schröder calls for the switch, Nesmith directs Schröder out to Evan Fournier on the wing and jumps in to cut off Robinson’s roll. He gets bumped, but doesn’t go down, and bounces up to get hands in the way of Rose’s bail-out pass, which flies off-target for a turnover.
It’s not a spectacular play by any stretch, but that’s honestly the point. It’s the kind of solid decision-making and communication you want to see from such a young player.
The difference from last year to now is stark. By way of example, the (very literal, this is not a joke) first clip I watched of Nesmith’s defense last season was one in which he completely leaves RJ Barrett (a 41% shooter on catch-and-shoot threes last year) wide open to double Randle when the help (Jabari Parker, lurking in the paint) is already there. Barrett missed, but, ideally, the ball shouldn’t even have ended up in his hands.
Looking at the extent of what we’ve seen from Nesmith — small sample disclaimer very necessary — I think it’s safe to say he’s been a defensive neutral at the absolute worst. So what we’re left with is ten missed shots that may or may not be costing Nesmith reps on the court.
Before Wednesday’s loss to the Wizards, head coach Ime Udoka telegraphed another DNP - CD, saying that Nesmith “playing a little too fast. I think he’s pressing a little bit and rushing things. He needs to slow down some and settle.”
A reasonable conclusion, given some of the offensive clips we watched above. Udoka also acknowledged that there’s room in the rotation for Nesmith to work on things. “With Romeo being out, there’s opportunity for him there,” he said. “So [Nesmith has] just got to slow down and take the shots that he always has.”
That didn’t bear out on Wednesday night, as Nesmith never left the bench. He wasn’t alone, either, being joined on the sidelines by fellow 2020 first-rounder Payton Pritchard, who saw the first healthy scratch of his NBA career.
It’s entirely possible the Celtics are simply playing around with different lineups. We’re still early enough in the year that lineup experimentation makes plenty of sense. Teams around the league treat these early games like “preseason+” in a lot of instances — a notable example being the Brooklyn Nets benching promising young wing Bruce Brown in their season opener against Milwaukee. Nesmith and Pritchard seeing some time on the bench now does not mean they’ve lost their roles on this team. Pritchard in particular is a known quantity who will undoubtedly see the court when his particular skillset is called for.
It’s hard to imagine the Celtics hitting their best potential outcomes without Aaron Nesmith in the fold, though. He’s an archetype of role player they just don’t have elsewhere on the roster; a big and rangy wing with a lethal shooting stroke and growing impact on the defensive side of the ball. Josh Richardson’s early play has been uninspiring, Jabari Parker’s unsustainable, and Nesmith is more likely to be a long-term piece than either anyway.
With that in mind, giving Nesmith a quick hook after a small scoring drought seems counterintuitive. There isn’t a lot to suggest that things have gone seriously wrong for him. There may well be no better cure than simply being on the court and seeing some shots hit the bottom of the net. Hopefully, Udoka and the Celtics can provide such an opportunity — and a Saturday evening tilt against a Wizards team with questionable reserve wing depth could be just what the doctor ordered.