Aaron Gordon lined up Aaron Nesmith late in the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ win over the Magic on Sunday. Robert Williams III stood behind Nesmith, as Nikola Vucevic approached with a screen. Williams pointed and shouted Nesmith into a switch as Vucevic rolled. Nesmith darted to Vucevic, already behind, and fouled for the fourth time in 13 minutes.
Nesmith turned and shouted a four-letter word twice to himself with his fists clenched. It was an uncharacteristic response from the usually calm and composed Nesmith.
Quiet and determined in his media appearances this year, maximum effort plays have helped him overcome unique physical and mental hurdles during his first season in Boston. Advertised as the best pure shooter in the 2020 NBA Draft, Nesmith has instead earned playing time with his all out hustle on the floor and commitment to get better when he’s not in the game.
Brad Stevens has noted Nesmith is among the earliest arrivers at the Celtics facility for work this season. Nesmith battled conditioning and defensive struggles, then a shooting slump, with long stretches of time spent on the bench. He’s improved mildly, but a frustrating rookie campaign digs at the ultra-competitive Nesmith, as noted in a CloseUp360 profile of the Vanderbilt standout.
During the break, he embraced productive distractions at home.
“He does not like to lose,” JP Pearson, his Porter Gaud High School coach, said. “When I mean lose, he doesn’t like to lose a game, he doesn’t like to lose a quarter, he doesn’t like to lose a play and that’s really refreshing.”
Nesmith’s 52.2% three-point stroke as a sophomore at Vanderbilt buoyed his draft stock and hopes that he could provide instant floor spacing for Boston and maybe even start in the place of the departing Gordon Hayward. He instead began the season outside the rotation, hitting 31% of his first 29 career attempts from three. Stevens benched him in 11 of Boston’s first 20 games, then removed him from the rotation again for the next six.
Stevens assures there’s been progress behind the scenes in limited practice time. “What he’s brought to the table is encouraging,” Stevens said on Monday. “I believe in his work and think he’ll continue to get better.”
Nesmith suffered more than perhaps any other rookie in the 2020 class. He broke his foot in January and didn’t play basketball until training camp in November. This year’s rookies also didn’t play in the annual Vegas Summer League, the group workouts before training camp, and had limited ramp up in a condensed preseason schedule.
“There’s going to be ups and downs in the NBA season for a lot of rookies,” Nesmith said in February. “This is the most games we’ve ever played in one season, so to play this many games back-to-back and make sure that you’re prepared for each one, it’s a hard thing to do. But as long as you stay consistent in your body of work, consistent in the things that you’re supposed to be doing every day, that will help you through and help you keep from hitting that rookie wall.”
Playing time eventually came. He hit six threes between wins over the Cavaliers and Bulls in January. He converted 42% from outside during an eight-game stretch in February. When shots didn’t fall, an unexpected side of his game emerged: hustle plays.
Nesmith smashed into the floor diving for loose balls, charged for offensive rebounds, including three in a loss against Atlanta. His defense, not always positionally sound, stood out for its effort. The Celtics won his minutes in seven of those eight games, and Stevens awarded him crunch time minutes against the Pelicans — intent on funneling more key opportunities toward his burgeoning rookie.
There have, of course, been growing pains. Nesmith’s missed rotation against Luka Doncic contributed to a potential road win against the Mavericks. The Celtics played no defense in a rock-bottom loss to the Hawks. The rotation then tightened when Boston lost 4-of-5, with minutes flowing inconsistently to Payton Pritchard, Robert Williams III, and Nesmith.
Between Vanderbilt and Boston, Nesmith turned to familiarity to help prepare for the turbulence of his first year in professional basketball. He built the large expectations that he carries today for himself starting in high school, winning back-to-back-to-back high school championships for the Porter-Gaud School. His play drew comparisons to Khris Middleton, also a Porter-Gaud alumnus. Their similarities on the court and off created a friendship that’s grown over years.
Charleston, South Carolina, their shared hometown, is the perfect medium between a big city and a low-key small town. It’s where Nesmith can avoid getting swarmed during his returns. Erin Nesmith, his mother, remembers him holding basketballs at 3-4 years old, then throwing the ball in a three-point arc as he grew older.
“It’s something I’ve always looked toward, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of,” Nesmith said. “From a realistic standpoint, (a basketball career was) something that never really set in until the end of my freshman year at Vandy. Then I was like, this is something I can really go accomplish.”
Bernie Nesmith, his father, surrounded Aaron with fishing from a young age--“he’s a big fish guy”--and Aaron hopes to carry a similar fish tank to the one that sits in his childhood home to Boston. Aaron built a concrete outdoor tank filled with various fish in the backyard, covered the side with stones, starting from scratch with a hole over 10 years ago. He catches everything at several freshwater locations around Charleston, from bass to perch.
Bernie and Aaron otherwise enjoy pool games, something Bernie hoped would take Aaron’s mind off the court and get him excited to dive fully into basketball when he returns to the floor. That benefited Nesmith during the All-Star break, who has at times hesitated to shoot and grown visually frustrated in defensive rotations during the fast-passing opening days of his NBA career.
“He absolutely wants to win at everything,” Bernie said. “I just enjoy having something to do and spend time doing something different.”
Nesmith realizes rookies won’t always get plays drawn up as Stevens has several times for him. On Stevens’ bench though, few players ever get totally lost. In the last three games, Stevens reinserted him for around 15 minutes. He opened his minutes against the Grizzlies diving on the floor and forcing a jump ball. Several plays later, he stepped around a Robert Williams III screen for a set catch-and-shoot three out of a timeout. For a small town kid with big city dreams, it’s a baby step, but a step nonetheless towards winning.