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Mid-season report card: the rookies

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What have we seen from Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard so far?

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

They’re a funny thing, rookies. Some arrive in the league to incredible fanfare, while others face immediate criticism, discredited before a ball bounces. Those are the extremes. Of course, a large portion of first-year players are seen as projects, and as such, live relatively pressure-free for the initial year or two of their contract.

“Pressure-free” is a luxury seldom afforded to those who don the green. A city enshrined in winning, where anything less is considered a failure, Boston is the ultimate “iron sharpens iron” test for young players, where learning cliffs are often scaled at maximum speed, and hustle is rewarded with adulation.

“What we wanted to do tonight was pick guys that we thought can come in and really compete for time. And also compete to help us, and add value to winning sooner than later. And I think that we have two guys that gym rats, two guys that want to be really good, two guys that put the ball in the basket and will be excited to get here and work.” - Brad Stevens on Draft Night

We’ve now witnessed both Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard get their feet wet throughout the first half of the season. As such, let’s take a look at what we’ve seen from both of these rookies so far.

Boston Celtics v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Aaron Nesmith

“He’s working really hard. He’s a guy that does not have the same level of experience as others but will catch up quickly because of his work ethic, his personality, who he is and everything else.” - Brad Stevens on Nesmith

Inconsistent. There’s no better descriptor than that. From playing time to usage rate to on-court performance - the NBA has been unforgiving to Boston’s 14th pick.

With a reputation of being the best sniper in the draft, Nesmith’s impact has rarely been felt from beyond the arc. Instead, the Vanderbilt product has taken a similar path to his second-year counterpart, Romeo Langford.

Both players came into the league pegged as offensive weapons, but neither has shown their true potential on offense thus far. Instead, their minutes have come courtesy of defensive intensity and hustle plays.

Hustle plays like the one above endear a young player to the fan base, but they build trust with the coaching staff. Inconsistency is inevitable while learning - that rings true far beyond basketball. Yet effort, well, is a variable in your control, something you choose to give or withhold.

In his time on the court so far, Nesmith has begun to project as more than a spot-up shooter, as he’s shown an ability to penetrate off the dribble along with being a solid weak-side help defender.

The young wing has a way to go in terms of playmaking and ball control, but these plays are encouraging. Here, Nesmith receives the opportunity to show his versatility as a ball-handler, running the pick-and-roll alongside Tacko Fall. However, having occasionally ran the offense (6.8% of the time) while at Vanderbilt, this may be worth developing long-term.

Unfortunately, we’re yet to see Nesmith operate as “an absolute sniper” ( he’s shooting at a shade below league average (36.8%) with 35.4% on 2.7 attempts per game) as he’s still getting accustomed to the pro’s pace and physicality.

Life has been difficult for Nesmith throughout the first half of the season, with playing time hard to come by and consistency even harder. Encouragingly, in the stretch of games where Nesmith found consistent minutes and a regular role within the scheme, he displayed an upside that’s worth nurturing and a motor that you can’t teach.

Let’s hope we continue to see the level of competitive hustle Nesmith has displayed thus far and that his shooting begins to bear fruit in the second half of the season.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Payton Pritchard

If we’re all being honest with ourselves, none of us were expecting Danny Ainge to select Pritchard with the 26th pick. Moreover, a vast majority of us were likely infuriated. Another undersized guard and he’s a four-year guy to top it off?

Here’s why Ainge makes the big bucks. Evidently, he saw something in Pritchard that captivated him, allowing Ainge to make an assured decision during the draft.

“He’s a guy that I think can play in any system. He can play with any players. I love the way he pushes the pace, and he’ll make the other guys run. When he’s playing with the ball in his hands, he gets the ball up the court very quickly, and he will make the other guys get up the court quickly: he has that kind of leadership ability with the ball in his hands. He’s a fun player, and we’re excited to get him.” - Danny Ainge on draft night.

That fearlessness has allowed Pritchard to hit the ground running in the NBA, outplaying his draft position and undoubtedly drawing envious glances from GM’s around the league. At the half way mark of the season, Pritchard currently sits;

  • 13th in minutes per game for all rookies
  • 12th in three-point percentage (40.2%)
  • 9th in free-throw percentage (94.4%)
  • 9th in assists per game (2.4)
  • 14th in points per game (7.7)
  • 22nd in field-goal percentage (45.7%)

Simply put, the 26th pick is top-15 in five major statistical categories and is outplaying his draft position by a country mile.

Despite Pritchard projecting as a point guard, he has spent 64% of his court time playing at the two, which has allowed the rookie to impact games off-ball as a floor spacer and secondary creator. Basketball Index’s tracking data cements Pritchard’s effectiveness as a floor spacer, tracking his catch-and-shoot three’s at 42.4% - the 83rd percentile among guards.

The above type of play has been the Oregon native’s bread and butter so far this season, providing a reliable outlet when defenses collapse on the primary point of attack. A smooth shooting stroke, quick release, and seemingly limitless range have allowed Pritchard to assert himself despite a modest usage rate.

Unlike most rookies, Pritchard is hurting teams in more ways than one. The change of pace, dribbling skills, and ability to finish in traffic have all culminated with the rookie running the pick-and-roll from time-to-time, with an encouraging degree of success.

An interesting point to ponder is that Pritchard’s impact on games is coming against both starting level players and second units, not garbage time rotation players. There’s value to such encouraging performances against legitimate NBA players so early in your career. In this above play, it’s John Collins who’s defending the pick-and-roll. That’s the same Collins who many Celtics fans would like to see in green, and Pritchard attacks him without a second thought.

Granted, not all of the rookie’s drives in pick-and-roll play have been successful; in truth, more have looked like the above play. As Pritchard continues to develop, his body positioning and shot selection will improve, as will his ability to read defenses, which should mitigate these lapses.

However, it would seem that Pritchard has been making the most of playing alongside fellow diminutive guard Kemba Walker, as he’s learning to use screens as space creators for pull-up jumpers.

How many times have we seen a play like this from Walker where he comes off the screen, attacking the space to get to his spot, before hitting a comfortable jumper before the defense can close out?

Ok, terrific; Pritchard has tons of room to improve but finds a way to impact games on offense, but how’s his defense been holding up?

Instat’s tracking data has Pritchard being utilized in a plethora of ways, primarily as a point-of-attack defender, which makes sense as he doesn’t have the size or length to impact the ball as a help defender.

Instead, Pritchard plays a Marcus Smart brand of defense: pesky, high-octane, and unapologetically in your face.

Pritchard goes under the first screen to meet Norman Powell at the three-point line, killing any advantage the offense had and forcing the hand-off. Pritchard reads the action like a veteran and immediately switches on to Terrance Davis.

Davis runs Pritchard into another screen, which momentarily takes the Celtics guard out of the play. However, through sheer determination and hustle, Pritchard manages to recover with a rear-view fly-by contest on the mid-range jumper.

Overall, Pritchard has been nothing short of a revelation, his ability to run an offense, provide secondary creation, floor spacing, and his defensive intensity have contributed to his meteoric rise within the Celtics rotation. As we enter the second half of the regular season, Pritchard should continue doing what he’s been doing as he looks to stake his claim for regular playoff minutes.

Safe to say, no one is questioning the use of the 26th draft pick anymore.