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CelticsBlog exit interviews: Aaron Nesmith’s rookie rollercoaster

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The sharpshooter came on late and showed the promise Danny Ainge saw when drafting him in 2020.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Five Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Charles Dickens may have written A Tale of Two Cities specifically about Aaron Nesmith’s rookie season.

Over the first part of the year, Nesmith looked initially like a bust. He couldn’t stay on the floor consistently, wasn’t making shots at a high rate and seemed to just be out there. Once April rolled around, the lightbulb went off, the switch was flipped, and he turned into a sturdy player in the wing rotation.

Nesmith’s final 14 games of the regular season were the turning point. Over that span, he averaged 8.2 points and 4.3 rebounds and shot 46.2% from 3-point range, showing the dependability in his jump shot that was the impetus behind Danny Ainge drafting him. More importantly, Nesmith was able to earn those minutes because he rectified some early-season defensive miscues.

Those mistakes are to be expected from rookies, especially in the early moments of their career. Nesmith’s were glaring enough on a team with playoff hopes to bury him on the depth chart and keep his minutes limited. Much of the lack of preparation can be chalked up to the strange preseason (or lack thereof). Nesmith didn’t have a Summer League, didn’t have a normal training camp and missed a large chunk of last season at Vanderbilt due to a foot injury.

Regardless, excuses are like behinds: everyone has them, and they all stink. When Nesmith is on the floor, the expectation is that he produces. And early on, things were rough on the defensive end. His first minutes in garbage time of the Christmas Day game against the Brooklyn Nets showed some immediate flaws on positioning and communication:

The biggest issues for Nesmith were in how easily he got blitzed off the bounce one-on-one. He’s decently quick and athletic, though seemed to dig his heels into the parquet on the ball. Guys regularly would rip the ball past him and get to the lane - a big yikes when matched up against wings who can get to the rim in two bounces or less.

Tim Hardaway Jr. shouldn’t be able to get past Nesmith this quickly to the hoop:

With a young player who has defensive deficiencies, the offense has to be going the right way to keep him on the floor. As a shooting specialist, Nesmith had one task to prove he could play through those mistakes: drill shots.

Through the first two months, Nesmith shot 32.6% from the 3-point line, a number too low for a sniper and definitely not high enough to earn him more minutes. Even constant injuries, resting of Kemba Walker on back-to-backs and COVID pauses for others couldn’t provide a regular role for Nesmith.

But slowly but surely, Nesmith got better through the year. His defense settled in where he’d be more aggressive on switches, get his feet out of the mud to slide with drivers and play with his arms up. Using his length is important for the 6’5” wing, as it allows him to guard bigger guys.

When he mastered this skill and stayed on his toes, Nesmith had all the appearances of a solid wing defender:

Once those possessions were regular and Nesmith tightened his holes guarding the ball, his minutes expanded. Shooters are rhythmic creatures by nature. Give them expanded minutes, the opportunity to take more shots and get into a groove and they will churn out more consistent performances. Instead of going 0-1 or 0-2, Nesmith got to take a few more and go 2-5 or 3-7 instead. That’s a winning tradeoff.

By the end of the season, Nesmith was getting so strong on the defensive end that he’d string together possessions like this one against the San Antonio Spurs, switching aggressively onto DeMar DeRozan, flying around on scrambles, moving his feet to stay in front of slashers and contesting vertically at the rim:

The defensive improvement is what provides optimism for next year. Rookie seasons are always a crapshoot on that end of the floor, with intricate actions on every play, fantastic players on every night and zero margin for error. Steadily getting better and getting his head above water in a sink-or-swim first year is positive enough to celebrate.

The low bar for clearance won’t be there in Year Two, however. The expectation for Nesmith is that he keeps getting better, studies some of the best 3-and-D wings this offseason and comes back ready to bite off a larger, more consistent role as part of Boston’s second unit.

What’s the ceiling moving forward? Bit by bit, it just needs to continue to rise. Ime Udoka will add different playbook wrinkles that could benefit Nesmith as a movement shooter. Aaron doesn’t project as the next Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown to the point where he’s a main cog in the wheel. But as a shooter, he has an important role in flanking the dynamic duo. Play solid defense, shoot a respectable mark from 3 and there’s an opportunity to play 20-25 minutes a night.