Rookie years in the NBA are supposed to be tough. From the enormous jump in talent level to the travel to adjusting to increased media scrutiny, and of course, dealing with newfound wealth, the transition is fraught with pitfalls.
A security blanket for most draft picks is the existence of the NBA G-League and a team’s ability to assign their players to their development team to get them some competitive reps while still playing within their system. This year, players on the Boston Celtics roster have had no such opportunity and are in a constant battle to find playing time.
For Aaron Nesmith, that fight hasn’t always gone to plan. There have been games where the rookie has surpassed the 20-minute mark, others where his appearances have been limited to garbage *ahem* player development minutes. However, regardless of his court time, the performances told the same story - this is a player who sorely needed some time in the G-League, a player that’s overwhelmed by the game’s speed at this level and is struggling to stay afloat.
Luckily, despite this baptism by fire, Nesmith did consistently bring one trait to the floor whenever he was given an opportunity: effort. Nesmith hustles. Sprinting back on defense, throwing himself in front of drives, fighting for every loose ball — it’s pretty clear he understands how to stay in Brad Stevens’ good graces.
Unfortunately, Nesmith wasn’t drafted as a high-energy defensive upside piece or to begin a culture reset; he was recruited to hit threes at a high clip. Excluding the last three games against the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets and Charlotte Hornets, Nesmith has participated in 32 games this season, averaging 12.6 minutes per contest while shooting 31.9% from deep on 2 attempts per game. That’s not the sort of efficiency you hope for when picking the best shooter in the draft class.
Of course, Nesmith has had to adjust. In college, most of the Vanderbilt product’s success came when shooting off movement, coming off screens, or pin downs before rising off the catch. In the NBA, those opportunities are yet to present themselves (thanks, Celtics ball movement,) consistently and instead, Nesmith has been tasked with hitting spot-up threes at a moment’s notice.
Yet, over the last three games, the ones we excluded a moment ago, Nesmith has begun to show signs of developmental life. And yet again, those signs began with the rookie’s defense.
Loved this defensive possession from Aaron Nesmith. Fronts Griffin, then traps Griffin.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) April 24, 2021
Hustles over to guard the second side action, X-ing out to recover defensive position at the strong-side corner.
As TLC drives, Nesmith cuts off the baseline and forces his man middle pic.twitter.com/dv17aZ4r7r
“I will say that in the last two games, I though Aaron did a really good job. His effort level was tremendous, so I thought in both games he did what he does best, and I think that made our team better at different times,” Brad Stevens explained when discussing first and second year players adding value when on the floor.
Defensive efforts are starting to become a common theme with Nesmith. From the player who didn’t know what spots on the floor he should occupy to dominating an entire defensive possession in under 10 months is some serious individual growth. One would expect Nesmith has spent an inordinate amount of hours in the film room to expedite these improvements.
The 6’5’’ wing’s improvements don’t stop on the defensive end either. Over his last three games, Nesmith’s three-point percentage sits at 57.1% on 2.3 attempts per game, which looks far closer to what fans hoped he could provide when the Celtics drafted him. Finding the bottom of the net is always a great confidence booster, but how you’re getting those shots is exponentially more significant in terms of continued success.
Of all Nesmith’s recent makes, this one is the most encouraging one by far. Beating the close out, taking a step inside, and then draining the two isn’t anything special by NBA terms, but what it signifies for Nesmith speaks volumes.
The patience and game perception shown in this play indicates that the game is moving at a slower pace for the first-year wing. Waiting for the close out before hitting the fake and stepping in, shows Nesmith understands the gravity he holds due to his reputation as a shooter, and if he continues to hit those types of shots that gravity will continue to increase.
The above play is a set that Nesmith has flourished in, in each of his last three games. Against Phoenix, Romeo Langford is situated on the wing and makes a 45-degree cut (a diagonal cut towards the rim). Nesmith lifts out of the corner to occupy the space left by Langford and hits the jumper off the catch. Again, by NBA standards, this isn’t anything spectacular, but for Nesmith, making the right read in this situation displays growth in his spatial awareness.
The Celtics ran the exact same play for him against Brooklyn, with Semi Ojeleye operating as the cutter - same result, Nesmith drains the three. Against Charlotte? Nesmith altered his movements to ensure he still got open to hit the three.
The difference in this play is that the cutter is also the ball handler. As Kemba Walker drives, Nesmith sinks deep into the corner, lulling his defender into a sense of security. Then, BAM! a quick change of pace to lift along the sideline provides the rookie with enough space to receive the ball and fire directly off a catch. Bucket.
So now we have a shooter who:
- Has improved his ability to read the game and process when to fill space created from cutters
- Is learning simple tricks to manipulate his defender before generating his own space
- Has the confidence to attack simple close-outs and take a step inside before pulling up
- Can provide solid defensive minutes and understands his positional duties within the system
It’s fair to say that there’s still a long way for Nesmith to go before he can be considered a rotational piece on a team with championship aspirations. Plays like the one below, where the rookie gets ran into a screen and loses his man, will need to be eradicated as soon as possible.
However, defense is seldom an individual effort. It takes constant communication from your teammates to ensure you’re in the best position to navigate the offense setting screens and trying to forge an advantage. So, while Nesmith allowed himself to get screened out of the possession on this clip, it’s not entirely his fault.
Improvement is never linear and often comes with periods of regression before a burst of improvements materialize. Yet, multiple flashes across both ends of the floor indicate the rookie is ready for a more substantial role sooner than later.
Brad Stevens on Aaron Nesmith: "What he's brought to the table is encouraging. I believe in his work and think he'll continue to get better."— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) March 22, 2021
For now, all Nesmith can do is continue to hustle on defense and show marginal improvements on offense, and hopefully that will be enough to get him some consistent minutes as the regular season draws to a close.