Cedric Maxwell calls the best shooter in the 2020 NBA Draft “Crash” on Boston’s radio broadcasts. He’s of course referring to Aaron Nesmith – who began Friday blocking Demar DeRozan on a help side rotation, after Payton Pritchard fouled DeRozan shortly before Nesmith crashed into the play.
Nesmith slid seemingly defenseless off DeRozan’s back and crashing back onto the hardwood. As always, Nesmith got back up seemingly unscathed.
The Celtics rookie joined John Zannis and me for an exclusive interview on the Garden Report Podcast to talk about his noe shoe deal with New Balance. Nesmith also discussed how he keeps getting back up after these vicious falls.
“I feel great,” Nesmith said. “I call it an ‘art of falling.’ You got to know how to fall.”
Nesmith’s shot is improving, he’s now 40% on catch-and-shoot threes, but his array of hustle rebounds, blocks and steals remain central to his recent success. Nesmith sounded more like Marcus Smart as he admitted he needed to adjust his game to impact the Celtics after a slow start.
His three-point percentage stood at 18.8% on his first 16 attempts. Brad Stevens watched him struggle to run the floor and react to defensive play calls in training camp and preseason. The speed of the pro game hit differently and an abbreviated ramp-up following a major injury last January didn’t help. He sat 14 times in Boston’s first 23 games, with his three-point percentage only ticking up to 31% overall. His release appeared rushed, at times hitched in limited catch-and-shoot tries during sporadic playing time.
Shooting didn’t comprise his entire game if you listened during the draft combine. Asked about his strengths, Nesmith listed floor-spacing, but also the ability to guard one-through-four, while playing with high intensity. The hustle wasn’t cliché, it stood out when he tip-toed along the baseline tracking rebounds in an early game against Cleveland.
“It’s definitely a little more new, just because of the situation and what the team needs,” he said. “It’s just something that the team needs right now to help win games … I know my role and I’m trying to do that to the best of my ability.”
On the court, Nesmith flexes his arms in response to mistakes, falling to the floor trying to draw a charge and popping up stunned at the blocking call. He flashes a similar motion for his celebrations that have become more common after strong finishes inside. Those who knew him in high school say he hates to lose a quarter.
“There’s a whole bunch of ups-and-downs and your mind is everywhere sometimes,” Nesmith said. “You can’t focus on that too much. You’ve got to make sure you live in the moment, be in the moment.”
Stevens assured the media that opportunity would come to Nesmith, emphasizing that he regularly arrived early to the Auerbach Center to work. He stressed staying ready to Nesmith early in the season the same way he did to Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, Semi Ojeleye and Tremont Waters in previous seasons.
A bigger plan developed for Nesmith, who Stevens surmised could enter closing lineups midway through February due to his spacing ability. He averaged nearly five rebounds per game early that month and improved to 35.7% from three, but defensive rotations, including a difficult contest on Luka Doncic’s game-winner in Dallas, proved difficult. He sat for seven games after, before struggling in his return in March.
“I think you can look at it from both perspectives,” Nesmith said. “Obviously from a playing standpoint nothing’s better than actually being in a game and getting reps up and being able to run around with those guys, but from a mindset standpoint I think it really helped me take a step back and look at the game from a different view and really helped my preparation every day.”
Nesmith figured out what the group needed from the bench, aware of how teammates acted on and off the floor, particularly as they missed Marcus Smart on the defense during his injury. He watched the impact Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams III’s aggressive offensive rebounding had on wins during the winter west coast trip. Despite the separated locker room, he embraced the closer personal time they shared at Auerbach Center.
He returned uncomfortably aggressive. Almost willing to do anything to get involved in a play as he tumbled and threw himself everywhere. He shot 18.8% from three again, but the Celtics narrowly won the minutes he played, particularly in Oklahoma City when his two steals and a block helped push a 24-point swing during a comeback win.
Nesmith then hit a three in two minutes at Denver, two more in eight minutes in the win over Phoenix. It became easier for him to take advantage of limited minutes, as shooting no longer decided whether he had a good or bad game.
“You go in and you make the most of it,” he said. “If you’re not doing it and you’re not prepared, that says something about you and your work ethic when you’re not taking the onus.”
Shooting 60% from three over his last seven games from three, Nesmith is progressing to the mean as an elite shooter. A few set plays into catches off movement above the arc help. The trust of a teammate like Brown feels better. Nesmith, buried for so much of the season, could become one of the most relied-upon rookies into the postseason.
Stevens went to Payton Pritchard and Romeo Langford late against Portland instead and a fully healthy team will likely rely on its veteran wings. They’ve been the ones, however, to struggle to hustle which should be the simplest response to this year’s struggles. Nesmith already knows that.
“I definitely wouldn’t say it’s surreal,” he said. “Playing basketball you play to win, you play to compete, so everybody in the NBA, everybody on this Celtics team is a very competitive person, so being able to play in those moments that’s what you play the game for. It’s fun for me. Going forward, having a spot in the playoff rotation, it’s not up to me. I’m just going to continue to go out there and do my job and help this team make winning plays.”