Forsberg: How Nesmith infused a turbo-shot of energy into Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Jerry Stackhouse might have been slightly biased but he was also incredibly prescient.
Even as his Vanderbilt product Aaron Nesmith put together an encouraging stretch of games in mid-February, his college coach cautioned that Nesmith was still figuring out how to best impact games at the NBA level.
Said Stackhouse in late February: "Once he gets it, look out. He’s going to do everything he can to stay there.”
Nesmith vanished from Boston’s rotation just as quickly as he emerged that month. Despite distinguishing himself with his hustle, he was a DNP -- Coach’s Decision in six of seven games starting on the final day of February. Even as Boston navigated relentless health woes, Nesmith’s playing time was spotty for the next two months.
But opportunity arrived again late last month. Nesmith got a chance to show his progress and came out with even more intensity than we’d seen in that February glimpse. Just as Stackhouse suggested, when it clicked for Nesmith, he wasn’t going to go quietly back to the end of the bench.
Nesmith dazzled with 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 3 steals in a gritty win over the Hornets. His energy was so important to Boston’s 32-point rally against the Spurs that Marcus Smart singled him out on a night when Jayson Tatum tied Larry Bird’s franchise record with 60 points. Against Portland, Nesmith made 6 of 7 shots, including all four 3-pointers he attempted.
Having produced the three best games of his career in succession -- and with a plus-27 plus/minus in 81.5 minutes in those games -- Nesmith has emerged as a key piece as the Celtics navigate to the finish line of the 2020-21 season. And it feels like this often low-motor Boston team needs his espresso-like energy in an unrelenting season.
“He's got an unbelievable work ethic, and he plays very hard,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “Everybody throws around those things as things that everyone has, but he's on the upper end of both of those.”
Nesmith simply operates with a different motor than many of his peers. He relentlessly chases offensive rebounds, often at the expense of his health as he launches himself onto the shoulders of an unsuspecting opponent in pursuit of the ball before crashing to the parquet.
Then he dusts himself off and does it again.
Nesmith has corralled 4.5 percent of all offensive rebounds during non trash-time play. That’s not a crazy high number but it does rank in the 84th percentile among all wings, according to data from Cleaning the Glass. The Celtics have a better overall rebounding percentage with Nesmith on the floor (52.7 percent) than Tristan Thompson (52.6), which sorta hammers home the notion that his energy and hustle is infectious.
Offensively, Nesmith is more confident with his shot than he was at the start of his rookie campaign. He’s shooting 67 percent on all non-corner 3s (8 of 12) since the start of April, and 55 percent on all 3s overall (12 of 22) which ranks best among all wings in that span, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s gotta be a better ball-mover on offense -- something that likely contributed to his playing time downturn in February -- but there’s no denying that he’s shooting with confidence when the ball swings his way.
The Celtics are 14-8 when Nesmith plays 10+ minutes this season and 11-5 when he scores 5+ points. He started the season 3-of-16 shooting beyond the arc and has made 32 of 76 attempts since.
It’s fair to wonder if he should have been playing more before this point. The Celtics were not flush with wing depth for the first three months of the season with Romeo Langford injured. Stevens has sometimes struggled with the balance between letting rookies develop while making mistakes and leaning on his more veteran players.
Stackhouse seemed to think in February that Nesmith found motivation in his limited time at the start of his pro career. Nesmith had to have heard the groans from Celtics fans each time Saddiq Bey had a big night for Detroit, this after Boston elected to take Nesmith during their turn on the clock. All of it likely fueled Nesmith’s already hefty desire to improve. When his opportunity came around in late April, Nesmith was ready.
If the Celtics are at full strength in the postseason -- and remember they haven’t had their top 7 healthy for any game this season -- then Nesmith is probably on the rotation fringe and might be left hunting scraps if Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Smart, and Evan Fournier gobble up most of the perimeter minutes.
But there’s going to be at least one instance this postseason where the Celtics need a jolt and maybe this little stretch is enough for Stevens to call Nesmith’s number. It’s a daunting task to count on any rookie for consistent shooting and scoring in the postseason, but Nesmith has the ability to make good things happen based solely on hustle and grit.
Take a step back and his ability to emerge as a rotation-caliber presence is even more important in the big picture for this Celtics team. With a ballooning payroll, Boston needs cost-controlled, high-upside talent that can pair with this team’s young core. For both Nesmith and Payton Pritchard to show such promise in Year 1 is huge for a Celtics team that hasn’t been consistently able to lean on rookies from the 2019 class. Nesmith is exactly the sort of player that can keep defenses honest and knock down open looks when teams put too much attention on Kemba Walker, Tatum, and Brown.
But it’s the turbo-shot energy that he’s displayed in recent games that has to remain his calling card here early in his career. He cannot downshift. And, from the way Stackhouse sees it, that’s unlikely to happen.