What’s the biggest lesson Aaron Nesmith took away from his rookie season?
“You have to give 110 percent every single day,” said Nesmith. “And make sure you’re ready to go when your name is called.”
Which sorta helps explain why, with three minutes to play in Boston’s exhibition opener against the Orlando Magic on Monday night, Nesmith nearly catapulted himself into a row of Celtics’ assistant coaches courtside while chasing a late-game loose ball.
Nesmith, who had already helped will Boston back into the game with his 3-point shooting, somehow managed to tap the ball back into play as he hurtled towards the Celtics bench. Showcasing his full-throttle hustle, Nesmith immediately sprinted out in transition and finished a layup through two defenders to tie the game.
Sure, it was just a preseason game. But the fourth quarter was the Nesmith experience in a nutshell. One minute he’s showcasing some poised and skilled 3-point shooting, the next he’s flying around like the Tasmanian Devil pursuing loose balls and trying to simply make good things happen with energy.
That combination of sugar and spice helped Nesmith earn Brad Stevens’ trust at the end of his rookie season. Now, the 21-year-old rookie could make a strong case to be the team’s fifth starter as new head coach Ime Udoka hunts for the players who can best accentuate the talents of the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown core.
Nesmith undoubtedly still has strides to make, particularly in terms of consistency on both ends of the floor. But his shooting could create much-needed space for the Jays and his intensity would mesh well with a defensive-minded first unit.
While Nesmith is simply focused on carving out a consistent role as he enters his sophomore season, he is eager to make life easier for the Jays whenever he’s on the court with them.
"Just being able to space the floor and become a threat off the ball," said Nesmith. "Those guys, they need the ball in their hands. So the more that I can do off the ball to make life easier for them, that's just better for the team.
"Whether that's cutting, screening, sprinting around, slipping -- and then, on the other side of the floor, do sort of what I did at the end of last year and make sure that never changes. Dive on loose balls, get offensive rebounds, box out, push people out of the way, and just be physical.”
Nesmith said there wasn’t a light-switch moment last season, but his uptick in minutes was directly related to his surge in intensity. Making shots helped, too. Nesmith missed 13 of his first 16 3-pointers to start his pro career but shot 37 percent beyond the arc the rest of the way. Over the final 41 games he shot 40.2 percent from deep.
If he can bottle up what we saw in the second half of last season, it would only enhance his case to be a potential fifth starter.
"After the All-Star break, becoming more comfortable in my role and just learning the things that the team needed me to do to help win games," said Nesmith. "And just making sure I bought into that every single day and made sure that every time my name was called I was at least able to do the same thing every day and then expand from there.”
So what can we expect from Nesmith in Year 2?
“Just a better overall basketball player, being able to make the right play, the right reads, playing with the right pace, and just making my teammates better,” said Nesmith.
It’s a tiny sample, but Brown, Tatum, and Nesmith shared the floor for 64 minutes last season. The Celtics had a robust offensive rating of 118.2 and a net rating of plus-14.6 in that span. Take away trash-time possessions and the numbers get even better, with a 125.2 offensive rating and a plus-17.7 net rating in 135 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass data.
The obvious question mark with a Nesmith-for-starter pitch is whether there’s enough overall size on the floor. In operating with three wings, it might force Tatum and Brown to defend more power forwards, something the team likely yearns to minimize given the burden they’ll be carrying on the offensive end.
But a team thin on shooting could really benefit from the threat of Nesmith with the first unit. Teams can’t cheat off him and clog the paint to deter the Jays from attacking. With teams focused on Boston’s top talent, Nesmith would be able to fly around and make hustle plays. No one will out-grit the Celtics when Smart and Nesmith are sharing the floor.
Nesmith is simply focused on playing with more consistency. It’s one thing to impact a game in the fourth quarter of a meaningless preseason game, or play full throttle in short off-the-bench shifts. It’s another challenge to do it consistently against another team’s starters.
Before returning to Boston for the start of camp, Nesmith worked out with Khris Middleton in their native South Carolina. The two both attended Porter-Gaud School in Charleston and Middleton has become a mentor of sorts for the younger Nesmith.
During his freshman year at Porter-Gaud, Nesmith worked a Middleton basketball camp and came away with his pair of shoes and a budding relationship. Now he’s truly trying to follow in Middleton's footsteps, especially after watching him win an NBA title with the Bucks last season.
And each time they work out together, Nesmith is trying to absorb as much as possible.
“Just the little nuances of the game that people don't really think about,” said Nesmith. "The little things, like how to create space in the littlest ways, whether it be footwork or using your shoulders, or even just mind games. Then, off the floor, how does he take care of his body, playing in the NBA for so long and 82 games a year? What are some things that he's doing that I'm not doing that I need to implement into my everyday routine?”
In Monday’s exhibition opener, Udoka went with veteran Juancho Hernangomez in the fifth starter spot alongside the Smart/Brown/Tatum/Williams core. It might be a hint that size is a priority in that spot. Udoka had previously noted that 35-year-old Al Horford was making a "huge case” to start given how spry he’s looked in camp.
But the Celtics are going to need shooting to get the most out of the Jays’ minutes. And whether it’s as a key piece of this core or a future trade asset, the Celtics can benefit greatly from Nesmith’s development.
Still, it's on Nesmith to force the issue and play with the consistency that makes Udoka truly consider him for a starting role.