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Boston’s young bench is growing up fast

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The Celtics reserves are now keyed by two rookies who have learned on the fly.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics have had one of the youngest benches in the NBA this season. Until the trade deadline acquisition of Evan Fournier, and subsequent signing of Jabari Parker, the only long-term veterans Boston had off the bench for most of the year were Tristan Thompson (for just 10 games) and Jeff Teague (for 29 games). Everyone else has four years or less of experience on most nights, including two rookies, two second-year players and a third-year often-injured big man.

That sort of youth has had the Celtics reserves near the bottom of the league in productivity, despite Brad Stevens leaning on them to play league-average minutes.

For the year, Boston’s bench groups average just 30.8 points per game. That mark outpaces only the Toronto Raptors (playing a bench made up recently signed and G-League level players) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (using reserves who aren’t likely to be in the NBA in coming years). Unlike the Raptors and Cavs reserves, the Celtics issue mainly seems to be inexperience and lack of opportunity.

Despite their low scoring-output, Boston’s backups actually shoot the ball quite well. Celtics non-starters are tied for third in the NBA at 47.8% overall field goal percentage and also tied for third in three-point percentage at 38.7%. However, the backups take the second fewest shots per game in the league from the field (24.3 attempts per game) and the third fewest from behind the arc per game (10.6 three-point attempts per game).

Some of that is driven by the Celtics not having a high-volume shooter off their bench. Rookie guard Payton Pritchard leads all Boston reserves in attempts per game at 6.2 and three-point attempts per game at 3.6. Compare that to Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz, who many have pegged as the Sixth Man of the Year. Clarkson takes 15.3 shots per night and 8.7 of them are three-pointers.

Now, Clarkson is an extreme example. No player in the league comes off the bench firing like he does. But it does point out the Grand Canyon-like chasm between the Celtics primary backup scorer and one of the best sixth men in the game.

But it goes a bit deeper than that for the Celtics. Pritchard’s seven shots per night make up 28% of the shots from Boston’s bench. The other 72% has been spread around fairly evenly among reserves games played with either Thompson or Robert Williams, Jeff Teague (when he was with the Celtics), Evan Fournier (when he’s come off the bench), and youngsters Grant Williams, Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford.

Fournier was acquired in part to give Boston their version of Clarkson: a high-usage scorer that could come in for 25 minutes a night and keep the offense flowing. That’s not a role that Pritchard, Nesmith or Langford is ready for, nor it is one either of the Williamses nor Thompson is suited for.

Sadly, the Fournier acquisition hasn’t gone quite to plan. He missed considerable time due to COVID, and he’s actually had to start four of the 10 games he’s played for Boston due to other absences. Robert Williams was also out during some of the same time as Fournier, removing yet another potent bench weapon.

Overall, in the month of April, despite noticeable improvement in play from several Celtics youngsters, Boston’s bench production has fallen off. Minutes, attempts and percentages are all lower since April 1 than they are for the season as a whole.

Simply put, Boston’s bench isn’t really getting it done. Yet, there are reasons for optimism.

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

Assuming the team can find good health at some point, Fournier should return to a bench role. That’s an immediate boost to the team’s production off the bench. Despite some ups and downs, Fournier has shown what he can do as a scorer for Boston. He’s a good shooter and a good on-ball creator.

Beyond Fournier, either Robert Williams or Tristan Thompson will come off the bench. Both play different styles, but both are productive. Williams is a vertical threat on offense and shot-blocking menace on defense. Thompson is a rugged defender and an offensive-rebounding machine. No matter who starts, the other will be solid as a reserve.

That’s two spots covered. In reality, only nine players play significant minutes in most games. A tenth player might see spot minutes based on scenario (foul or injury trouble) or matchup (Semi Ojeleye for big, strong ballhandlers like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Grant Williams for mobile bigs, Romeo Langford for wing defense, etc.). That leaves two roles open, and it seems that Boston’s rookies are poised to grab them.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Payton Pritchard has a stranglehold on his rotation spot. He’s been a key backup since day one. Pritchard has come off the bench in 57 of his 59 games and he’s averaged 7.7 points per game on 45/42/91 shooting splits. If anything, Pritchard should probably shoot more than he does, at just seven attempts per game.

Pritchard is both comfortable as a spot-up shooter and off the dribble. His spot-up range already rivals the deepest shooters in the game. Pritchard is at 41.9% from 24 feet and out. That puts him in company with elite shooters that have taken at least 200 attempts from that distance. Overall, Pritchard is also at 47.9% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers. Of players who take at least 2.4 such attempts per game, Pritchard is in elite company like Joe Harris, Joe Ingles, Seth Curry and Kevin Durant.

Off the bounce, Pritchard prefers to pull up right at the arc, or to drive all the way to the rim. He’s a crafty finisher with both hands and stronger than he looks. Pritchard will play his 20 minutes per game, no matter who is available.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

As for Aaron Nesmith… the slow ramp up has worked out almost perfectly. Nesmith came into the NBA as unprepared as any rookie. He played just 14 games at Vanderbilt and none since January 8. He missed almost the entirety of the pre-draft process and was limited to start the abbreviated training camp. In his early appearances, Nesmith seemed lost. Several times teammates had to grab and physically position him on both offense and defense.

One thing stood out from the jump however: Nesmith’s hustle. In just 13.7 minutes per game over 39 games, Nesmith has had 21 deflections and has recovered 22 loose balls. Those rates place him near the top of the league in both categories. He’s also contested over 103 shots, which is a very high rate as well.

Nesmith’s nose for the ball has shown up in more traditional ways as well. He’s snagged 13 steals, blocked nine shots and grabbed 22 offensive rebounds in his limited floor time. To put it in terms everyone can understand: you know when Aaron Nesmith is on the floor because he’s always doing something.

The hustle plays and the defense are great, but in order to play in the NBA, Nesmith was going to have to make shots. He came into the NBA with a reputation as one of the more ready-made shooters. The start to his career told a different story.

In limited playing time in December and January, mostly due to the game being too fast for him, Nesmith shot horribly. Over the first month of his career, he hit just 32.4% overall and 31% from three.

February saw Nesmith play his most minutes yet, as he logged 18.4 minutes per game over nine appearances. In that month, Nesmith continued to make all the hustle plays, but found his shot too. He buried 50% of his attempts overall and 42.1% of his three-pointers. March saw Nesmith’s playing time dip, as Brad Stevens leaned heavily on the starters and went back to some bigger lineups.

In April, Nesmith got his chance again and seized it. His defense is now to the point where he can just play. There are still rookie mistakes to be sure, but no one is pushing and pulling him to where he’s supposed to be. And all the hustle plays are still there too.

On offense, Nesmith’s shot looks great. Since the beginning of April, Nesmith has hit 54.9% from the field and 50% from behind the arc. There are also two signs of Nesmith’s growth. The first is that Stevens is running set plays for him now. The second is that he’s no longer taking only standstill threes. In addition to the catch-and-shoot sets, he’s also showing a nice off-the-dribble game as well.

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

Boston’s bench has been underwhelming for lots of the year, but it’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg” exercise. Does the bench not produce because the starters carry such a heavy load? Or do the starters carry such a heavy load because the bench doesn’t produce?

It’s probably a bit of both. Brad Stevens leans heavily on lineups with Jayson Tatum and four reserves. Beyond the regular and semi-regular groupings, Tatum and four backups are the most-used lineups Boston has. And, of course, Tatum is going to eat up a lot of the usage in those groupings.

However, if Evan Fournier slots into a backup role, and Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams are both available, combined with rookies Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith looking good, the bench production should rise.

As with every team, the starters will log the most minutes and get the most shots for the Celtics. All Boston needs their backups to do is play well in their 20 or so minutes per night. Hustle, hit shots and defend. That could be enough to lift Boston to a better-than-expected playoff run.

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