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Celtics trade deadline gives Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard new life

Barring any significant veteran additions in the buyout market, the Celtics cleared a path for Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard to earn minutes.

New Orleans Pelicans v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics closed the book on the 2019 NBA Draft (aside from Grant Williams) when they sent Romeo Langford to the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday as part of the Derrick White trade. The Celtics made similar decisions on Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters and Tacko Fall within the past year.

Danny Ainge and now Brad Stevens held on tight to the class as long as they could, hoping Langford’s defensive floor could translate into offense after a modest showing at his first NBA Summer League. Career highs of just 4.7 points, 2.4 rebounds and 42.9% shooting, along with more bumps and bruises that cost him games, showed the Celtics enough of the 22-year-old, and they decided to cut ties.

Consolidation that turned seven players into two at the deadline turned Boston even further toward the veteran, win-now direction Ime Udoka has established as head coach. This felt like his deadline, acquiring a former Spurs and Team USA guard in Derrick White, with Daniel Theis rounding out a dedication to defense.

However, Thursday also presented Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith, the remaining youth on the roster, a golden opportunity in the near term. They had no regular rotation minutes on Tuesday. But beginning last night, they’ll be crucial bench shooters. Against the Nuggets, Pritchard found minutes as part of the eight-man rotation.

“With Josh and Dennis being out, then there’s also opportunities off the bench, opportunities for a really good shooter in Payton, for a really good shooter in Aaron,” Stevens said today. “We will fill our roster out with guys that are skilled ... we’ll probably look to add a couple (players) today and then evaluate and go from there.”

Udoka always maintained hope for Pritchard, who he asserted multiple times he’s seen Pritchard thrive in high school and college and that he’s doing enough to play. He simply didn’t have opportunity behind Dennis Schröder. Richardson and Langford also had a leg up on Pritchard in the minutes hierarchy. Now, all three are gone.

Pritchard belongs and playing the two-guard next to White on-ball in second units could benefit him. Smart and White’s size together in three-guard lineups could protect him defensively, while Pritchard’s 46.7% mark on catch-and-shoot threes last year ranked fifth among players with at least 160 tries. He’s also a ball-handler who pushes the pace.

Nesmith sat further from any playing time and still faces an uphill climb as he’s missed wide open shots regularly and defensive discipline remains his largest issue. The Celtics traded shooting and size with Richardson though, and Nesmith projects to become one of the top options for the near future to replace him.

It won’t be surprising to see Udoka go seven players deep most nights and only sprinkle minor minutes to one of Pritchard or Nesmith. The shooting problem looms, perhaps larger than before. Sam Hauser will join the active roster, and one of those three players will need to step up to give this roster some floor spacing. Hauser shot 41.1% from three on 10.8 attempts per game in his first eighteen starts.

If the Celtics only play their starting lineup, plus White and Grant Williams, it’s easy to imagine more sub-20% nights from deep and 2-for-17 starts. Boston attempted over 36 triples per night before the deadline, ranking 11th in volume and 23rd in efficiency. Their threes as a percentage of field goals (41.6%) finished closer to the middle of the league, but in fourth quarters, they’ve sometimes leaned into launching long jumpers.

Not only do Nesmith (20.7% 3PT) or Pritchard (37.1% 3PT) need to find roles throughout the course of games, there’s a case the Celtics need to find a way to implement one of them, or Grant, into closing lineups.

That’ll displace one of White or Marcus Smart among Boston’s best five. The Schröder and Smart back court haunted Celtics fans late in games until early January. White (31.4% 3PT) and Smart (31.6% 3PT) will now become staples together in the fourth.

“I think in some cases, our younger players ... it’s been somewhat a function of it’s hard to break through the players in front of them,” Stevens said. “Jayson plays 36-37 minutes per game, Jaylen’s going to play a ton when he’s out there. Those guys are both wings and so there’s only so many minutes left, and so you’re fighting. Especially when you have 15-deep and three or four of them on your 11-15 have been just recently drafted guys. That’s really tough, because there are not a lot of minutes that are out in play on a normal night ... both those guys are good players. Obviously, Grant has found a way to establish himself within a role here. We think that both Payton and Aaron, we have great belief that they’d be very good if they’re able to earn the opportunity. That’s just what it is. It’s a hard league and there’s a lot of great players that, once they find the right fit or opportunity, can really shine.”

In December when the team was dealing with a spike in COVID quarantines, Pritchard earned steady playing time and made the most of it, with a 38.1% streak from three with 13.5 PPG during a six-game streak of 29.9 minutes and 7.0 threes per game.

Nesmith’s four-night run in December of close to 20 minutes per game was stopped short by a stint in the league’s health and safety protocols, but it was a streak to forget. He shot just 21.4% on 14 tries. His release didn’t look pure or fluid, the game appeared to blow by him at times, and he later admitted his shot wasn’t where it needs to be. He even spent a game in Maine where he leaned into putting the ball on the floor and scoring inside the arc.

The Celtics drafted Nesmith as a catch-and-shoot marksman, but he almost immediately adjusted his game into rebounding and hustle plays when he hit a similar lull as a rookie. He closed out 2021 on a nine-game run where he shot 46.7% from deep and resembled his Vanderbilt self.

That, and as the Boston Herald reported, excellent practice shooting where he’s ripping through 85 out of 100 shots gave rival teams hope they could buy low on his remaining potential. Only one year and change removed from his draft night and after a stellar Summer League showing alongside Pritchard, Boston made the right call giving him a chance.

Recent garbage time minutes saw him attack closeouts and hit a tough turnaround jumper. The offensive tools are there. It’s just a matter of whether he can string together a handful of open shot opportunities and minutes into something larger in the coming weeks.

This trade deadline breathed new life into him and Pritchard that both players needed. They’re at the doorstep.