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The waiting game: after successful rookie seasons, Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard battle through sophomore slumps

Grant Williams and Romeo Langford have taken over as the featured young players in the Boston Celtics rotation

NBA: Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

After Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown got drafted, the Boston Celtics still had a plethora of draft picks left. They may not have been top-3 picks, but they had enough first rounders to either consolidate and make a trade or accumulate a crop of young talent. Danny Ainge chose the latter, and for the most part, he did great. He and the front office drafted a slew of players who, in theory, could pan out to be solid role players next to Tatum and Brown.

Robert Williams, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Aaron Nesmith, and Payton Pritchard have all played well in the past, but this year is different. The Celtics added quality veteran bench pieces (Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson) to the rotation, and these players now find themselves fighting for minutes. Robert Williams has earned himself a place amongst the starters, but the other four are battling it out for playing time.

To take that a step further, each of them has the necessary skillset to play a crucial role within this C’s rotation. On a team that desperately lacks three-point shooting, these four have that ability. However, it all comes down to whether or not they can perform when their name is called. Lots of fans have been clamoring for Nesmith and Pritchard to get more minutes, but when looking at the numbers, it makes sense why Williams and Langford are being prioritized.

Grant Williams has become a polarizing figure among Boston Celtics fans - they either love him or hate him. Despite this, he has been the most consistent offensive player on the team this season. Outside of the injured Jaylen Brown and the uber-efficient Robert Williams, he is the gold standard when it comes to efficiency. As of now, Williams is shooting 50.7 percent from the field, 40.8 percent from deep, and 88.2 percent from the free throw line. He’s literally one free throw make from the elusive 50-40-90 club. This offensive success is the main reason he has earned so much playing time this season.

He ranks third on the team in three-point percentage, and the two players above him take less than two a game. The Celtics generate 17.7 wide-open threes per game, yet only convert on 32.1 percent of them (27th in the NBA). Meanwhile, Williams attempts 2.5 wide-open threes per game by himself, knocking down 43.2 percent of them. The importance of that reliability cannot be understated.

This same argument can be made for Romeo Langford as well. He is shooting 43.8 percent on wide-open threes (at a slightly lower volume) to go along with 45.0 percent from three-point range as a whole. Langford went from one of the most inconsistent shooters on the team last season, to one of the most reliable players on the team from distance. This dramatic improvement has allowed him to garner consistent playing time.

Langford also brings a lot more to the court than just his shooting. Whenever he comes off the bench, he brings with him the ability to handle the ball and create plays for others. In Boston’s recent win against Cleveland, Langford only scored one point on the night, but he finished the game with three rebounds, two assists, and two steals.

As soon as he stepped onto the court, the offense went from stagnant to lively. He was able to get downhill and create opportunities for his teammates. Up to that point in the game, Boston had yet to effectively get to the paint. They were playing around the perimeter too much, so Langford took it upon himself to get inside.

As Williams and Langford have found their niche within the Celtics offense, Boston’s most recent first round picks, Nesmith and Pritchard, are struggling to find consistent minutes. While this may not sit well with some Celtics fans that were excited to see their second seasons after promising rookie campaigns, both have suffered from sophomore slumps (not unlike Williams and Langford did last year).

Pritchard is shooting just 24.0 percent from deep this season, and Nesmith is even worse, shooting 17.9 percent. To make matters even worse, neither of them are shooting particularly well on wide-open attempts either. Pritchard improves to 33.3 percent when he’s wide open, but Nesmith only jumps up to 18.8 percent. It may be frustrating to see them get benched night in and night out, but they simply aren’t shooting at the level they were last season.

While their shooting slumps may be contributing factors to their lack of playing time, it’s not the main reason cited by Ime Udoka. According to Udoka, Nesmith is “playing a little too fast.” He thinks the young wing, who has been given the nickname “Crash” for his often reckless abandon on the defensive end, needs to slow down a bit and find a rhythm. Udoka has also stated that Nesmith just “rushed things early” in the season. Hustling is great, but it can start affecting other areas of his game.

Udoka has also touched on the fact that Pritchard may not be as switchable on defense. The Celtics have been utilizing a “switch everything” defense a lot this year, and Pritchard doesn’t fit that scheme too well. The undersized guard showed some grit last season, but when it comes to switching on to bigger opponents, he would likely get cooked.

Udoka has heard the calls for more Pritchard minutes, too. He recently let it be known that he has talked to the bench guys about their lack of minutes. The head coach stated that “we’d like to find him more minutes, but it’s just a little tough” and he emphasized that it’s not so much what they’re not doing, but what others have been able to do:

“I talked to all the bench guys today and told them I’ve been there as a player and so, stay ready, stay prepared, opportunity is going to come, so take advantage whether you have three minutes, or ten, or twenty.”

Udoka’s rotations have been tight this season, with very little wiggle room. When asked if the talk was needed based on players’ body language, Udoka said it was “just to keep guys encouraged.”

Since the team added depth this offseason, Udoka has had some very tough rotational decisions to make. With Dennis Schroder playing as well as he is, and Josh Richardson’s veteran presence and ability to drive, Pritchard and Nesmith have fallen to the wayside. They aren’t nearly as consistent as fellow youngsters Williams and Langford, either. Back on November 4th, Udoka had this to say about Nesmith:

“It wasn’t just that he played poorly, it was other guys had played well. Grant really played well early. Romeo played well early. And so we were just going with that lineup as well as our veterans with Dennis and Josh. So, got squeezed there a little for minutes, but we always have confidence in him.”

With so many talented players in the rotation, it’s been tough to find minutes. Udoka has been going with the guys who have given him consistent play. In regard to young players, that has been Williams and Langford so far this season. However, being ready at all times is key and just another lesson that a young player needs to learn and embrace. Sometimes the difference between getting DNP-CDs and 20+ minutes a night is a string of solid games. Pritchard and Nesmith just have to stay patient and stay ready.

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