Celtics

Here’s why Aaron Nesmith’s recent surge could be so important for the Celtics

Nesmith has forced his way into the Celtics' rotation.

Aaron Nesmith's emergence has been crucial for the Celtics. AP Photo/Elise Amendola

One of Aaron Nesmith’s best attributes as a player feels a little simplistic on the surface — he’s great at being where the defense isn’t.

Some of Nesmith’s other skills are more obvious. He’s a good shooter (and he might be better than “good” at some point). He plays incredibly hard, and he’s more athletic than evaluators thought heading into the draft.

But Nesmith is particularly good at floating to gaps — a crucial skill for a sniper who mostly shoots off the catch. Watch him drift above the 3-point line here to make himself available when his defender loses him tracking the ball into the paint.

The movement looks subtle, almost instinctual. But that type of movement helped Nesmith free himself often in college. Scouts raved about his ability to shoot off movement, comparing him to players like J.J. Redick.

More to the point, that skill fits like a puzzle piece next to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

Here’s another example: Brown drives into the paint and jumps without much of a plan. Nesmith, spotting the issue, shifts to his left as his defender leaves his feet. That motion gives Nesmith plenty of time and space to square and bury the triple.

Brown and Nesmith have had a successful partnership this season. In 188 minutes on the floor together, the duo has a sky-high net rating of +14.3. The Celtics have been at their best this season when Brown and Tatum handle the ball early and often, creating for themselves and others. Tatum has the highest usage at 31 percent with an assist percentage of 19.9 — 95th percentile among NBA forwards. But Brown has taken an enormous step up in usage as well — 28.3 percent (up from 23.3) with an 88th-percentile assist percentage of 16.2 (up from a 45th-percentile 9.6 percent).

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The Celtics, correctly, want Tatum and Brown handling the ball, but they need teammates to act as outlets to do that effectively. Nesmith’s willingness to embrace an off-ball role could make him an ideal outlet.

“It’s just being able to play with those great players,” Nesmith said last week after the Celtics rallied against the Spurs. “They instill confidence in you every time you step on the floor. For me individually, every time I get to play and every time I get to run up and down and get into the flow of the game, it just starts coming more naturally and it’s just becoming a lot more fun.”

In the admittedly minuscule sample size of the last five games, Nesmith shot 60 percent from 3-point range. As teams learn to respect his 3-point range, his gravity will unclog the lane, especially paired with Payton Pritchard’s deep range. Per Cleaning the Glass, lineups with Nesmith, Pritchard, and Brown are outscoring opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions. With Nesmith, Pritchard, and Tatum, the Celtics have outscored opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions. In 46 possessions, those four players have outscored opponents by 34 points per 100 possessions.

“I like having Aaron out there,” Brown said last week. “He plays extremely hard and he can shoot the ball when he gets going, too. And he guards. Gets some rebounds, blocks, throws his body around.”

A few times earlier this season, Brad Stevens noted that the Celtics’ bench players hadn’t done much to differentiate themselves from one another. Nesmith, who was drafted in part because the Celtics hoped he could contribute this year, was one example.

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Nesmith’s early struggles were understandable — he had no Summer League and a limited training camp to prepare for a grueling regular season with a team trying to make a deep playoff run. But Nesmith kept plugging away, even when the Celtics didn’t give him minutes.

That persistence paid off.

“I’d say the part that has been the most impressive to me over the last two games has been the fact that a guy can go from not playing that much from a conditioning standpoint and play those long stretches as hard as he did,” Stevens said. “Again, that speaks to his work ethic on off days, it speaks to his preparation throughout the season. And he’s getting more comfortable. He still has a bunch of plays where he looks like he’s a step behind the play, but he makes up for it because of his effort.

“So I’m really happy for him, and we needed that kind of a jolt from someone. It’s been great that he’s been able to give it to us.”

Over the last three games, the Celtics have entrusted Nesmith with real rotational minutes — he’s averaged roughly 25 minutes per contest at the expense of players like Grant Williams, Jabari Parker, Romeo Langford, and Semi Ojeleye. The Celtics may have found an important rotational piece for their postseason run, if Nesmith continues to shoot well.

“Continuing to work and continuing to do the work,” Nesmith said, when asked how he can maintain his shot. “The early mornings — still waking up every morning and getting to the gym to get extra shots up. Consistency — even if it’s not falling, I’m going to keep shooting. So as long as I keep doing that and keep the same mindset, they’ll continue to fall.”

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