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Baby steps: Aaron Nesmith’s improvements worth noting

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The rookie wing may not have a consistent role going forward, but that doesn’t mean he’s failing to get better.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to evaluating young NBA players, there’s a good deal of hypocrisy involved. Many pundits and fans know these guys need time to improve and season their games to succeed, yet when early minutes don’t yield positive results, panic sets in about whether the player will ever figure it out. It’s so easy to talk about patience, and so hard to stay patient.

Boston Celtics rookie wing Aaron Nesmith has been in the crosshairs of said hypocrisy. Drafted 14th overall back in November, Nesmith hasn’t found consistent minutes for the win-now Celtics. He played only 14 games a season ago, and it was widely accepted that there was work to be done on the defensive end before he ever earned the “3-and-D” label.

While the lack of positive impact from a lottery pick has been somewhat frustrating, there’s a definitive improvement from Nesmith over the last six weeks that should calm down those frustrations. The rookie wing hasn’t found many minutes, but he’s gotten better at making the most of each run he gets. For a fringe rotation guy, that’s really all you can ask.

From Valentine’s Day until the All-Star break, Nesmith shot 42.1% from deep while playing 20.5 minutes a game. Most importantly, the Celtics outscored their opponent when he was on the floor in seven of those eight games. That’s a huge improvement for the rook, who wasn’t part of positive minutes until January 24th.

A lot of the improvement can be attributed to him finally knocking down shots at a high clip. After shooting above 50% from 3-point range at Vanderbilt last year, expectations were high for Nesmith. He got off to a rocky start, and the game looked a little fast for him out of the gate. As things have slowed down, he’s getting more consistent from deep.

That comes from knowing where, and when, to get his shot off. In theory, he should have an easy job: stand in the corners and make open shots. However, Nesmith was used to being the focal point at Vandy, always on the move through the lane and off screens while his teammates set screens for him all over the place. Guys who are used to being so active can struggle to adjust to a role that requires them to stand still and wait for the ball.

He’s starting to get more comfortable, and he’s really proficient when he’s set pre-catch in the corners:

Role understanding has been much improved out of Nesmith, as has his aggression. He’s buying into the bigger picture and knows when he has to pull his shot in order to be respected. When anyone goes underneath a dribble handoff he’s involved in, Nesmith is ready to make them pay. He pulls from deep and levels them off to create the room to do so.

If he’s going to be respected as a shooter, he needs to keep taking (and hopefully making) these looks:

More now than ever, the NBA game is based on math. Teams talk about guarding the arcs, making it difficult to score around the charge circle and the 3-point line. When Nesmith is spotting up, his reputation is that of a shooting threat, not a finisher, shot-creator or pull-up scorer. Thus, defenders have a tendency to fly at him and chase him off the line, or disrupt those dribble handoffs so he can’t comfortably shoot.

Nesmith looks so much more poised when lanky, athletic defenders come flying at him. He’s starting to slow down when he has to put the ball in the floor, survey his surroundings and then make an aggressive play towards the rim. He’s physically capable of being a solid finisher, he just needed to slow himself down a bit, acclimate to the speed to the game and make sure he gathers himself before launching to a finish:

While the offensive improvements are notable, it’s the defensive ones that are more encouraging. To say Nesmith was lost at the start of the season would be an understatement. He was consistently picked on, routinely out of position and borderline unplayable with a target on his back.

As the game has slowed, he’s gotten much better at staying in front of the drive. He’s gifted with a strong frame and a decently long wingspan. He’s starting to use them defensively, playing with active arms and squaring his chest to drivers by winning the first step. When he forces difficult jumpers instead of giving up rim attacks, those are major improvements from where he was early in the year, and a win for the Celtics:

The Celtics are a switching team on defense, based off the strength of their three best defenders: Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. JT and JB are super long and can stop both wings and guards. Smart, a super-strong guard, is tough enough to guard anyone. When sliding into the rotation with these guys, wings need to be able to defend multiple spots.

Nesmith has the strength and length to do so, but isn’t known for his quickness. He’s started to compensate by being slightly more aggressive on the switch. He lunges out towards his new assignment and plays with arms high. His goal is clear and simple: stop the guy from getting to the rim and make him become a pull-up shooter.

Those same concepts of beating his man to a spot, playing long and encouraging a jumper show up off the switch, which makes him manageable when going up against solid isolation scorers:

By and large, fans and media alike don’t do a good enough job rewarding or drawing attention to steady improvement. Instead, we look for those “lightbulb moments” when everything clicks all at once. Nesmith hasn’t had the lights turn on yet, but you can see the circuits starting to fire. He looked more comfortable in the last month, is starting to anticipate where his shots come from, and is making far fewer defensive mistakes.

Nesmith is already getting squeezed from the rotation as the Celtics make a push for the postseason. That doesn’t mean he’s a guy the team should bail on long-term. Trade deadline trade rumors will continue to fly around, but Nesmith has shown enough over the last few weeks to quiet any murmurs of him being a bust.