When the team acquired numerous veterans to deepen the rotation in the off-season, the notion that Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith would struggle to see floor time seemed alien. The Celtics' young guys were riding the crest of a wave from their rookie seasons.
Nesmith had performed well in the latter part of the 2020-21 season, while Pritchard seemed unstoppable in Summer League. But then the season started, and the bench rotations didn't feature either of the Celtics sophomores as prominently as many had expected. Heck, heading into Opening Night, large segments of the fan base expected Nesmith to get a starting spot and for Pritchard to be a primary bench piece at either the point or shooting guard spot.
However, Ime Udoka has leaned on his veteran core over the first 24 games, which has limited the development of the Celtics' talented two young guys. Both sophomores have been limited to roughly nine minutes per game and have participated in 19 of the Celtics contests. Yet, even when they've been on the floor, it's rare they've been featured heavily within the team's offensive approach. Udoka believes that part of the young guys' trouble for floor times is due to the Celtics struggling to hold onto big leads in games earlier in the season.
"Absolutely, those are all opportunities for young guys that need to grow and get real live game action. That's invaluable. As much as you work out or practice or play five-on-five, there's nothing like real live game action. To your point, the games when we had big leads and let those slip away, it's lost moments for those young guys. They really got the lead going in the third, and we left them in the fourth, and they continued to capitalize on that. Great for them to come back in and get some run on the end, take our guys out early on a back-to-back, and rest up for our next back-to-back. But your point is exactly right, any chance they got on the court, I think those minutes are invaluable for their growth and their progression," Udoka told Boston Sports Journal's John Karalis when asked about the lack of development time afforded to Pritchard and Nesmith thus far.
Then, against the Portland Trail Blazers, both second-year guys got their chance, and neither let it slip through their fingers.
Nesmith, a movement shooter, began curling off pin-downs to hit motion threes above the arc and looked incredibly confident when doing so.
Coming off a stagger screen, Nesmith does what he does best, catches the ball, squares his feet, and fires away from deep. The mechanics on his shot look smooth and repeatable, which is night-and-day to how he's looked when asked to perform as a spot-up shooter on the wings or in the corner.
The Vanderbilt product went 3-of-4 from deep in the contest, along with his usual brand of controlled chaos on defense and a couple of nice dimes to round out his offensive impact. When the team was struggling to see the ball drop earlier in the season, it was a little mind-boggling that a shooter of Nesmith's caliber didn't get more opportunity, especially when you get him in rhythm like he was against Portland. However, Udoka seems to be getting a better grasp on his roster's individual strengths and weaknesses, which means Nesmith could feature off the bench more often if he continues to provide spacing and a scoring punch.
That leads us on to the man of the night, the homecoming king, or as Udoka referred to him, "the hometown hero." Pritchard had been quiet during his opening minutes on the floor. Sure, he provided the Celtics with some additional ball-handling and always looked like a penetration threat, but with his shooting struggles of late, you never felt like he was going to turn into The Human Torch.
Then, Udoka threw a young lineup to start the fourth quarter, and Pritchard went "flame on" before he got cooking from deep. Like most scorers, the Celtics young guard just needed to see a shot fall - and that's usually all it takes.
After this hesitation filled bucket, Pritchard went on to score another five times in the final four minutes, getting both the crowd and the bench behind him. Unfortunately, the bench may have enjoyed the show a little too much, with their celebrations earning a technical foul towards the end of the game. And no, Udoka wasn't impressed with how the team acted in the face of victory.
"We got three offensive rebounds and were getting it back up with 10/9 seconds. We wanna hold that and respect the game. So, I did apologize to Chauncy at the end for that. Didn't mean to get out of hand like that – that's when things get heated on the court. So, you'd like a little more understanding, but at the same time he's caught up playing well in front of his hometown, you're happy for him, but there's a line not to cross there," Udoka explained when questioned about the team's behavior in the final seconds of the game.
Of course, Pritchard, who likely had friends and family in the stands, had different feelings about how the Trail Blazers would have felt in those closing moments. "We hitting shots. I don't know what they want us to do."
While neither Nesmith nor Pritchard would have earned themselves a starting spot within the rotation after their performances in Portland, it's clear that both are capable of providing a spark off the bench for the Celtics. There's no question regarding the duo's talent or ceiling, but there is one surrounding Udoka's willingness to extend his bench rotation to incorporate these two scorers into his nightly plans.
Whatever Udoka's blueprints are for the upcoming stretch of games, neither of the sophomore scorers did their stock any harm with their performances in Portland. Now it's up to the Celtics coaching staff to continue providing them with a platform to develop.