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The diamond in the rough: Aaron Nesmith continues to ascend

Three games, three standout performances for the rookie, finally hitting his stride.

Portland Trail Blazers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

There are roughly three different kinds of personalities on display at an NBA press conference. Outcome notwithstanding, you have the following:

  1. The detached star, who answers questions about his game — how he just has to keep shooting and the shots will fall — and commends the team for their efforts or proclaims that next time, they’ll need more effort. This player likes long showers and aims to keep his answers brief in hopes that he can return to his son, Deuce. Ah, crap. This was supposed to be anonymous.
  2. The coach, who more often than not will defer to coach-speak, i.e. providing injury updates that aren’t actually injury updates, not keying reporters into what conversations might happen behind closed doors (unless, of course, those conversations fuel, in some way, career-best performances or wins), and detailing how the team did “a lot of good things” but can improve “in other areas.” There’s nothing wrong with this; keeping your cards close to the vest works at least 62 percent of the time.
  3. And finally, the guy who’s just happy to be there, in the midst of a special personal run, and is eager to answer questions, but won’t show it too much. This is often a rookie, and therefore someone who wants to play it cool, showing that they belong in these press conferences, somewhat speaking on behalf of the team, rather than merely a visitor.

Aaron Nesmith, evidently, is the third option here. He’s now appeared on the Celtics’ postgame Zoom three straight times — each presser fittingly following a career-best performance from the rookie guard — and each time, he’s been a quotable gem.

He notes the areas in which he can focus to improve his game, recaps what he thinks might have gone wrong in a loss, and provides some stock answers, most notably, “we’ve gotta be able to do it for 48 minutes” and/or “we definitely didn’t come out with the right defensive intensity.” He’s barely old enough to drink, but the NBA forces you to grow up fast. Therefore, he has the poise of a veteran, carrying himself like one.

San Antonio Spurs v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

But then, upon answering his final question of the night, he turns to the plethora of reporters in their Zoom boxes before him, and thanks them. Whether it’s for their time, their questions, no matter. He stands up, and before turning to leave, he says, “awesome. Thank you!”

It might seem silly to point this out, but it’s also something that goes unnoticed far too often. As fans, writers, general viewers, whatever, we forget that these moving images we watch on a nightly basis involve real people. Kids, even, in the case of someone Nesmith’s age. To hear him say “thank you” as the press conference following a pretty terrible loss to the Portland Trail Blazers comes to a close does feel like something of negligible value, but if fans are to appreciate the players they root for in full, they should, in turn, love the kind of person he’s at least appearing to be. Not thanking Gary Washburn and Keith Smith after they ask questions about a tough loss at a key point in the season doesn’t make Jayson Tatum a bad guy, but hearing Aaron Nesmith offer appreciation is just... nice. It’s not the icing on the cake or even the cherry on top of a sundae. It’s like when the waiter brings both ketchup and hot sauce, just in case. I didn’t need either, but it’s nice to have the option.

Nesmith’s play has been nice, too. That should be noted. He’s scored at least 15 points in each of his last three games — two wins over Charlotte and San Antonio, and Sunday night’s loss against Portland. In each, he’s remained a stalwart offensive option and a more-than-capable defender, never afraid to out-muscle a seven-footer or help onto the opponent’s best offensive player. He’s been exactly what the Celtics have needed: a bench spark that provides relative consistency and the extra punch that other options have lacked of late. Tip-in here? He’ll take that. Loose ball there? No worries, he’s already streaking across the floor, at least aiming to make a play.

He attributes his increasing confidence, and its steadiness, to his work ethic and to “sticking with it,” no matter how hard it may have been to stay ready, to stay confident in his play. “Continuing to work, continuing to do the work,” he said after the Portland game. “Early mornings, getting up early and getting to the gym and getting shots up... Even if it’s not falling, I’m gonna keep shooting. So, as long as I keep doing that and keep the same mindset, they’ll continue to fall.”

That’s the right approach — in moderation, at least; you don’t want a player to force shots in hopes that one will fall when it’s clear that it’s not their night — but it’s not one that Nesmith has had to access all that often in this three-game stretch. Since that first big game on April 28, he’s shot 67.9 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three, the best mark on the team (among players playing in at least 10 minutes per game, per NBA Advanced Stats). He’s posted an average plus/minus rating of +9 in those three games. And he’s been remarkably efficient when it comes to taking care of the ball, too, only turning it over twice, an 8.2 percent turnover percentage, per Cleaning the Glass.

All of this, again, comes with a major caveat: he’s played this well in three games, an extremely small sample size that, if applied to other players, would give guys like Chris Chiozza and Jake Layman the efficiency ratings of seven-time All-Stars. But as I’ve written before, Nesmith doesn’t appear to just be riding a heater. He’s patient with his opportunities and committed when he knows he has an open shot. In the past, he was skittish, catching the ball like someone who has been asked to babysit a newborn but doesn’t know how to hold one. Now, he’s making extra plays before catching the ball, like this nice down screen for Jaylen Brown against a Portland defense that had lost Nesmith entirely.

Later in the game, Nesmith gets a screener of his own; the result is the same. Anfernee Simons is closer to contesting the shot than anyone on the previous play, but Nesmith’s quickness gets him the opening at the top of the key he needs to get a clean shot off. This is always going to be three points.

Boston ran similar sets for Nesmith against San Antonio. Here, as CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith also points out in his takeaways, Nesmith fiddles with the route he takes with his cut, editing in real-time and throwing Simons for a loop. He stops his cut early, Simons goes under the screen, and Nesmith is suddenly open, not cut off. These are plays specifically run for him, mind you. Brad Stevens wouldn’t have dared to try that a month ago, let alone a week.

Something else you love to see: Nesmith’s ability at the rim, which wasn’t necessarily on display against the Trail Blazers, but has undoubtedly proven to be an element he has to his game, one that he can access time and again. Not only does he seem to record at least one offensive tip-in per game, but 34 percent of his attempts are coming at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s still beaten out by the 41 percent of his attempts that come from beyond the arc, but it’s a significant change from the 15 percent of shots at the rim (which placed him in the league’s 20th percentile) and 72 percent from three (90th percentile) he was recording before April 28. That’s either the sign of a timid player, or a player who thinks he can only fill one role on offense, and need not try to access other parts of his game. He’s changed that.

Defensively, Nesmith only directly accounted for 14 of Boston’s 129 points allowed against Portland. The two players he spent the most time guarding — Simons (48.1 percent) and CJ McCollum (35.9) — he held to just four player points on one-of-three shooting. Nesmith didn’t record a steal nor block, but he was effective and affecting, fighting off screens to contest jumpers or sliding into the paint to impact otherwise pedestrian floaters.

The Celtics lost to Portland though, so to even imply that anything from the game was diamond-like almost feels facetious. But it’s hard not to let your eyes glimmer a bit brighter as a young player ascends right before them, never mind the result. Postgame, Nesmith emphasized the fact that he and his teammates need to keep the same intensity for 48 minutes or rue the consequences. On Sunday, they did. Moving forward, it’s about making sure that isn’t the case.

At one point during the NBC Sports Boston broadcast, Mike Gorman asked Brian Scalabrine if he thinks Nesmith is proving himself worthy of cracking the team’s playoff rotation. Scalabrine responded almost with a scoff, noting that he has “no idea” what Brad Stevens will decide to do.

I suppose that’s fair, but it’s almost absurd to assume that should his work continue apace, Stevens would return Nesmith to his seat on the bench. He’s been playing too well for such a decision to make sense, though Nesmith is more interested in talking about how the team can improve. Sure, he’ll note that he’s still hitting the gym early and getting his shots up, but it’s all about consistency as a team, not just as a solo act. Nevertheless, he’s proving that he belongs. I think he knows he does, too. And not just on the postgame Zoom.

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