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Aaron Nesmith exit interview: could Year 3 be his leap year?

The Vanderbilt product’s outside shooting took a step backward from his rookie year, but he continued to flash impressive defensive chops. 

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

In the days after Boston’s Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors in The NBA Finals, several Celtics players and staff members took to the podium for exit interviews. Among the participants was 2020 first-round pick, Aaron Nesmith. He candidly reflected on his sophomore stint, which didn’t pan out as he had hoped.

“[My shot] just wasn’t there this season,” Nesmith said. “In practice, it’s there. In workouts, it’s there. It’s just as soon as the game starts. It’s just mental. You know, pressing...[I have been] putting a lot more pressure on each shot I take because I haven’t been making them."

Three-point shooting was Nesmith’s calling card in college. Unfortunately, he has yet to enjoy the same success beyond the arc in the NBA. Nesmith converted just 22% of his non-garbage time threes on the season (3rd percentile in accuracy among wings). Hence he was never able to crack Ime Udoka’s rotation.

While Nesmith received sporadic playing time all season long, when Udoka called his name, he proved capable of impacting winning in other facets besides shooting. Namely, Nesmith is a whirlwind-of-energy type defender with a real nose for the ball; he competes with great intensity and seldom gives up on plays. This modus operandi earned him the nickname “Crash.” Sometimes his willingness to launch his body for loose balls or to get back in plays on defense borders on recklessness. Still, it’s better to be a player who may go overboard in pursuit of 50-50 balls and stops instead of one who won’t put in the necessary effort.

It’s not just the eye test that pointed to Nesmith’s knack for making hustle plays on defense — the advanced numbers did, too. According to Cleaning the Glass, Nesmith ranked in the 69th percentile among wings in steal percentage and the 77th percentile in defensive rebounding percentage, respectively. Of all Celtics who played more than 11 games during the regular season, only Marcus Smart and Robert Williams finished better in steal percentage relative to their position. Under these same parameters, only the Jays bested Nesmith in defensive rebounding percentage.

The lone instance during Boston’s playoff run where Nesmith saw the floor for important minutes was Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics were without Marcus Smart, who sat with a right mid-foot sprain, so consequently, Nesmith became the last man in the rotation. He put together a performance that now serves as a microcosm of his sophomore campaign. In 11 minutes of play, Nesmith attempted three threes and missed all of them. But he was everywhere defensively. He tallied three blocks on the night — two of them stopping fastbreak baskets — along with one steal and rebound.

This chase-down rejection on Victor Oladipo late in the third quarter might be the play of his career to this point. At a time when Boston was reeling, Nesmith raced back following a turnover to block a shot he had no business blocking.

Still, for all that Nesmith brings to the table defensively, he will continue to be on the outside looking in on the rotation if he can’t re-discover his collegiate shooting prowess. To be clear, he doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering long-range shooter like folks projected he’d be before being drafted. The Celtics would likely be thrilled if he could replicate or come close to his rookie-year three-point percentage of 37 percent.

The good news is, despite having struggled mightily to hit outside looks as a sophomore, Nesmith hasn’t lost faith in his jump-shooting ability.

“I’m still very confident in my shot,” Nesmith said. “I’m a phenomenal shooter. I know that. The team knows that. The coaching staff knows that.”

Nesmith is now entering a pivotal third year in the pros and according to The Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach, he'll participate in Summer League again this July. It may very well decide his future with the Celtics and the NBA. Here’s to hoping Nesmith responds to all the adversity he’s dealt with over the last year with the best season of his career in 2022-23. If Nesmith can act as an efficient floor-spacer, the Celtics might have an internal solution to their lack of wing depth.

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