Jerry Stackhouse knows a thing or two about succeeding in the NBA. Before becoming head coach at Vanderbilt University, Stackhouse averaged 16.9 points over an 18-year career, made the All-Star team twice and played in 75 playoff games.
“They got a steal, man,” Stackhouse told NBC Sports Boston’s Chris Forsberg. Stackhouse coached Nesmith for one year at Vandy before the Celtics selected him 14th overall in the 2020 draft. ”The character and what he’s going to bring to them on the court, it’s going to be special. Once he gets it, look out. He’s going to do everything he can to stay there.
“I just think he’s one of those sponges,” continued Stackhouse. “He’s probably put a ton of pressure on himself being a lottery pick and not playing a ton early on, so he wants to try to prove to everybody in Boston that they made the right decision, so you guys got that working for you as a Boston fan that this kid is going to continue to try to prove everybody that he belongs where he is, and I think that’s going to allow him to flourish and become who he needs to be for them.”
More Minutes Means More Confidence
Despite his lottery pick status and sharpshooting reputation, the 6-foot-5 Nesmith began this season mostly on the Celtics’ bench. And when he did play, the results were underwhelming: Over 10 games from December to mid-February, Nesmith shot just 34.4% from the field and 31.0% from three, and he committed more turnovers than assists (7, 5) and personal fouls than rebounds (16, 15).
But, as guard Marcus Smart’s injury has persisted longer than expected, and head coach Brad Stevens has searched for a spark amidst a plummeting record, Nesmith minutes have risen dramatically. In Boston’s seven games leading up to Friday’s 118-112 win over Indiana (during which Nesmith only left the bench for seven minutes) he averaged 22.4 minutes and 6.0 points on 52.0% from the floor and 44.4% from three. Over that span his +/- was 6.1.
Which is not to say Nesmith’s increased playing time has reversed Boston’s falling fortunes — the Celts went 2-5 in that same seven-game span. But it’s clear his confidence is growing with each appearance, as is his comfort in playing with the Celtics’ young stars.
“I think for Aaron it was just about kind of learning the system, understanding everything that was going on on both ends of the floor [and] understanding how to play with other superstars,” said Stackhouse, who was named to the All-Rookie first team in 1996. (Kevin Garnett made the second team.) “You’re not just playing with a couple of All-Stars, these are superstar level guys with (Jayson) Tatum and Jaylen Brown.”
No Stranger to Winning
For the 21-year-old Nesmith, as with almost all NBA rookies, the concept of coming off the bench is something he’s rarely been forced to understand.
As a sophomore in high school, he was the leading scorer for Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, South Carolina, and led them to a state championship –– the first of three state titles for Nesmith and Porter-Gaud. He was named SCISA Class 3A Player of the Year three times while at Porter-Gaud, and in his senior was honored as South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year.
In 2018, his freshman year at Vanderbilt, Nesmith quickly went from sixth man to a starter. And he was the team’s leading scorer his sophomore year before a right foot injury ended his season and ultimately his collegiate career. At Vandy, he was known for his dead-eye shooting, but has had to shift his focus to defense since arriving in Boston, something he’s been happy to do as long as it gets him on the court and helps the team compete.
“I’m just trying to do whatever the team needs me to do,” said Nesmith following a nine-point, +20 performance in a win against Denver on February 16. “Coming off the bench, for the starters, for the rest of the team, I’m just trying to be an energy boost and an energy guy, a guy that helps other guys play harder, a guy that helps us towards winning.”