BOSTON — Aaron Nesmith found out about the Celtics trade on the golf course. Usually his escape from the chaos of basketball season in his native South Carolina, he soon prepared to begin the next phase of his career in Indianapolis — but first opened his phone and saw the social media reaction.
Players absorb more online content than many fans would imagine, and while Nesmith respects everyone’s opinions and Boston’s roster decision didn’t strike him personally, a tweet from a major news outlet with ties to the NBA did. He quickly saved the tweet.
“I do take things personally and I think that helps make me better,” Nesmith said. “That’s what drives me to go to the gym at night. So, seeing that tweet was always on my mind for sure ... sometimes I’m having a good day or something. I open up the photos and it’s in there — it makes me wanna go to the gym ... when a legitimate source tweets it, it definitely holds more weight. More people see it.”
The four position emerged as Indiana’s weakness, opening opportunity for the former Celtic and simultaneously setting the team’s sights on upgrades this summer. Nesmith secured a starting role for 60 games last year on a competitive Pacers team that faded late after Tyrese Haliburton was injured. Obi Toppin arrived in a trade as an immediate starting replacement and the team drafted Jarace Walker as long-term depth competition. Nesmith returned to the bench, but the Pacers and Nesmith agreed on a three-year, $33 million extension ahead of the October deadline.
Two games into the young season, Nesmith affirmed that confidence in him with 26 points, nine rebounds and no turnovers across 30 minutes in a win at Cleveland. Nesmith shot 10-for-16, 5-for-9 from three and only fouled once. That ceiling rarely emerged in Boston, but Indiana allowed him to play through mistakes, find a shooting rhythm and sustain bad nights in ways the Celtics couldn’t. The trade — despite its initial shock — worked for both sides.
“Freedom, opportunity, belief. All that stuff helps any player,” Nesmith said.
He arrived in the Indiana locker room looking like he packed on several more pounds of muscle onto his upper body, while also walking with a poise and speaking with some edge. Rick Carlisle saw Nesmith arrive with motivation and a drive he witnessed in the workouts he watched while the coach visited his summer house in South Carolina. The Celtics could’ve included several salaries alongside Daniel Theis’ larger contract that primarily matched Malcolm Brogdon’s in the deal. The Pacers showed they liked Nesmith by investing in him.
On Wednesday, he entered less than five minutes into the game for Bennedict Mathurin and lined up with Jaylen Brown three possessions later and dribbled left past him for a layup through Brown’s foul. The next string of plays, a tip-in, a foul Kristaps Porzingis guarding him tight and another on Al Horford diving to the ground for a loose rebound, looked more reminiscent to Celtics fans — who gave him some appreciative applause during his substitution.
“The thing that he did so well was he adapted to a different style of play,” Carlisle said. “Very often in his career in high school and at Vanderbilt, was a guy who was in set offensive situations with a lot of actions run for him. We play a faster, much more random game, so he needed to find out what that was all about, be able to adjust to it, make the reads, those kind of things.”
“Lloyd Pierce, my lead assistant has done a tremendous job helping him adapt. He’s been one of our best defensive players and obviously we all know he can shoot the ball really well, and he’s developed other parts of his game, He drives it now. He’s making really good, simple reads and is a very important part of what we’re doing here.”
Jayson Tatum threw down one of his signature dunks of last season on his former teammate when Nesmith returned last year and Nesmith defended his former teammates for 20 more possessions on defense. The duo hit 3-of-4 against him, but walked away with eight points. On an early set guarding Brown, a foul call frustrated Nesmith, who later turned to the crowd after hitting a corner three.
Nesmith acknowledged his frantic, defensive style emerged out of necessity to earn minutes while he played in Boston. He didn’t arrive at the Garden bent on revenge, or expressing any regret he didn’t rise to the contending level of his former Celtics teammates. He found a team rising alongside his trajectory, and showed again that he belongs in the NBA.
That happens. The team that drafts a player develops him, but doesn’t have an opportunity to offer, then he emerges elsewhere. Payton Pritchard avoided that fate after signing his extension this summer and he credits Joe Mazzulla who helped navigate uncertainty early in his career as his assistant coach. The league can break those players, Mazzulla said.
It didn’t break Nesmith though. And he proved much more than a paper clip, a piece of string, or a funny tweet.
“There wasn’t a lot of playing time,” Carlisle said. “I wouldn’t call it a freedom issue. There just wasn’t a lot of time for him to play. That was challenging. When you would get in for short stints, it’s tough. I was one of those players that frequently was in that situation, and it’s one of the most challenging things. But he’s clearly a guy who’s taken advantage of an amazing opportunity with us. He really fits our organization, what he stands for, what we’re building, who we’re going to be and couldn’t be happier to have him on board.”