As Losses Mount, Celtics Rookie Vanishes

Aaron Nesmith Payton Pritchard

Getty Rookie guards Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard defend

It’s not unrealistic to imagine that on the morning of February 25, 2021, Boston Celtics guard Aaron Nesmith woke up with hope in his heart.

The night prior, amid a dispiriting blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the rookie out of Vanderbilt had been one of the few bright spots, scoring 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting (3-for-4 from three) in just 14 minutes of game time. Not only that, after starting the season mostly on the bench, Nesmith had averaged 22.4 minutes in the seven games leading up to the Atlanta game, and his hustle and defensive intensity had opened eyes.

But ever since then, Nesmith, the 14th pick in last year’s NBA draft, has been all but absent from the Celtics’ rotation. In Boston’s last eight games, he has played a grand total of 16 minutes and was the only non-two-way player to not see the floor in Wednesday’s 117-110 loss to the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs game DNP was especially notable considering that point guard Kemba Walker was inactive (rest) and the Celtics clearly could’ve used a jolt defensively.

So the question is: What happened to Aaron Nesmith?

Keeping Brown and Tatum Fresh

On Thursday’s Toucher & Rich morning show, Boston’s president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, was asked where his rookie sharpshooter had gone, especially now that the team has dropped three of four since the All-Star break and energy level is, once again, a concern.

Somewhat ironically, Ainge said Nesmith’s vanishing has to do with head coach Brad Stevens wanting to keep fellow guards Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum as fresh as possible.

“Our team has other weaknesses as well and we don’t want Jaylen and Jayson dribbling the ball up the court all the time and wearing themselves out having such an offensive burden,” Ainge explained. “Aaron’s not the ball handler and playmaker that Payton Pritchard and Jeff Teague are. And so [Brad’s] choosing to pay ball handlers and guys who can get in the paint and try to create and break down the defense — as opposed to the non-ball handlers on the team — with Jaylen and Jayson.”

Which is not to say that Nesmith’s hustle a few weeks ago flew under Ainge’s radar.

“I thought he gave us some good minutes,” said Ainge. “Again, [he] was another guy who stood out to us in a rough patch. He got an opportunity to play, he was playing well in practice, and Brad stuck him in there. He also was a player — not having the same impact as Rob Williams of course — who was bringing that energy and intensity to the game on the defensive end. And I thought that he was looking like a very promising prospect and a guy that gave us great effort and great energy night in and night out.”

With the trade deadline approaching and Nesmith’s name occasionally appearing in rumors, conspiracy-minded fans may read into Ainge’s use of the past tense when discussing the 21-year-old. But a deal involving Nesmith doesn’t seem likely given his lack of exposure and experience, and Ainge is not known for quickly cutting bait on guys he believes in. (Just ask Carsen Edwards.)    

“Maybe we’ll see him here in the second half of the season,” Ainge said hopefully.

A Shorter Rotation

For his part, Stevens explains Nesmith’s precipitous drop in playing time as a shortening of the rotation in an effort to win now.

“I just shortened [the rotation],” Stevens told reporters before Boston’s March 14 game against Houston. “When we came back from that trip we were 15-17 and I thought Teague had played really well in that Atlanta game when he had the chance to. But it was more about shortening it and trying to be the best we could be.”

And like Ainge, Stevens also invoked Pritchard when discussing Nesmith’s sudden bench-warming.

“Aaron I thought again did good things, but rotating [him and Pritchard] together as we get more fully healthy is just more difficult,” said Stevens. “But he will get his opportunities. He will play.”

Nesmith is 23rd in total minutes played this season amongst 2020 draft picks — nine notches below his draft slot.

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