I think Aaron Nesmith just turned the corner.
Twenty years from now, you’re going to find yourself huddled around friends — remember friends? — at a bar — remember bars? — in downtown Boston. You’re wearing a Celtics home whites jersey over a long sleeve t-shirt, sipping your second beer as tip-off looms. Since this is a fantasy, guess what? It’s also Trivia Night, and you and your team have a chance to win tickets to Friday’s game. So far, you’ve nailed questions on “The Office,” MySpace Tom, and the diameter of a standard dartboard. The last question will, naturally, be about the Celtics. You were made for this. Life is good.
The bartender taps the microphone, clears his throat, and reads the final question: “This future Hall of Famer notably turned the corner in his career with a 15-point, nine-rebound, three-steal and three-block performance against the Charlotte Hornets on April 28, 2020. He’d go on to win seven MVP awards and lead the Celtics to six championships in his illustrious 20-year career.”
At first, you crinkle your brow. “That was an inordinately long question, bartender,” you think to yourself. But of course, you know the answer. You don’t bother consulting your teammates as you scribble down the name “Aaron Nesmith.” This was too easy. You’re wearing his jersey, for crying out loud; you’ll also wear it to Friday’s game against the Seattle Supersonics. Life is really, really good.
Snap back to reality (oh! There goes gravity), and you realize that while this fantasy may be steeped in slight hyperbole, the feeling left behind by last night’s showing from the Vanderbilt product is, indeed, nothing short of full-fledged jubilance. No, the Celtics would not have defeated the Hornets in their season-series rubber match last night, 120-111, if not for the combined 73-point services of its All-Star duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But if this meager regular-season game is to be remembered for anything, it will be remembered as the night Aaron Nesmith stared down the rookie wall that had plagued him for the first four-ish months of the season, laughed in its face, and (finally) ran right through it.
“I’ve said all along, he’s played hard and worked really hard,” head coach Brad Stevens said after the win. “I think as he’s gotten more practice time, game minutes here, the difference between his play now and January and February is night and day.” Nesmith’s performance last night felt like a sunny summer afternoon in comparison to what he brought in games earlier in the season, to Stevens’ point. His averages certainly won’t skyrocket thanks to one game, but consistent performances that even sniff the quality of his work last night will help.
Not only did Nesmith record a career-high in practically every statistical category: he played patient basketball that felt particularly seasoned, a serious departure from his past efforts. After the game, The Athletic’s Jared Weiss asked Nesmith about a particular play in the second half — Nesmith passed up a wide-open three to instead attack the rim, thus drawing a foul on Cody Zeller — that mirrored a play in the first half in how it began, but not how it finished. Nesmith explained that, since he air-balled the look in the first half, he elected to take advantage of the lane in the second. “The same lane opened up, this time Zeller was even a little bit farther back,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Lemme just take it to the rim and make something happen this time.’ And that’s what I did.”
Nesmith didn’t pass everything up following the air-ball, the mark of a young player who is beginning to better understand when his shot is there and when it’s not. He made two threes in the game, both of which were released quickly, without hesitation. Young players will find themselves riding the pine early and often in their careers if they’re unable to make snap decisions at the pro level; prior to last night’s contest, that appeared to be Nesmith’s problem. In his first real clutch minutes, he delivered.
This was the value Nesmith was expected to bring; scouting reports typically billed him as a confident knockdown shooter who could develop into a competent defender. Both seemed to be big “ifs” through much of this season, so it’s ridiculously encouraging to watch him release the ball so confidently from three. He was composed when his opportunities came, never rushing the release too much following the first-half air-ball. Everyone gets the jitters sometimes, even future Hall of Famers like our guy Aaron here.
The bigger “if” of the two when Nesmith came into the league, though, was undoubtedly his defensive ability. He had the bones to be competent, but he was rightfully never pinned as a scrappy defender who would be making play after play in crunch time. The collegiate sample size was small — he only played in 14 games his sophomore season at Vanderbilt, and his offensive returns were ridiculous compared to his prosaic defensive numbers.
But last night, he showed real flashes of a player who will make the hustle plays when you need them to be made and when they’re just nice to have. In a game without Marcus Smart for unforeseen circumstances, Nesmith slotted pretty perfectly into the role Smart has built his reputation on. His three steals and three blocks, which paired beautifully with his nine rebounds, might’ve been the best part of his individual box score.
I encourage you to check out the second block in particular — the second to last clip. He throws himself directly into Miles Bridges and swats the ball out of his hands. In the paint, no less, where Bridges likes to embarrass folks and tally mass casualties. He killed Clint Capela, remember? For Nesmith to run at him, no holds barred, is bravery at its finest.
“Great kid,” Jaylen Brown gushed after the game. “He plays extremely hard. His energy is always good whether he’s playing or not. He works his ass off. He’s stepping into his opportunity, and he’s playing well.”
“I love having him on the floor. He makes mistakes sometimes, but he makes them going 100 percent. And I’ll take that.”
When asked if he worries about Nesmith flying around the floor at a pace akin to that of the Tasmanian Devil — my words, not John Karalis’ — Brown noted with a chuckle, “I want him to be careful. But to be honest, the other players are probably more in danger with Aaron flying around and throwing elbows and stuff. I worry more about who he might hurt rather than him hurting himself. I love Aaron.”
Nesmith, respectfully, would note that he makes plays going 110 percent. And that he definitely does care about whether or not he gets hurt.
“No, I definitely care!” he said. “I definitely care, but I’m just going out there 110 percent. 110 percent, trying to make any effort plays that I can ‘cause I know every team needs effort plays… that’s what wins ball games. And so I’m gonna go out there and I put my body on the line in order to make a play happen. But yeah, safety, safety is definitely something that I got to pay attention to. But 50/50 balls, if there’s a ball on the ground, I’m gonna get it a hundred out of a hundred times.”
Between his hustle plays, his confident three-point stroke, and a handful of offensive rebounds he probably had no business corralling, Nesmith staked a claim for more time last night, at the least. Perhaps he makes good on that time frequently and fans begin to laud the once 14th pick’s value in ways they hadn’t dreamt of before. Perhaps, albeit unfortunate, this was a mere flash in the pan, and Nesmith’s production will come crashing back down to earth the next time he sees valuable minutes.
Just let it be known that, if he continues to play like he did last night, he’ll be your trivia answer in 20 years’ time. Perhaps it’ll be to a harder, far more specific question, Sports Jeopardy!-style — remember Sports Jeopardy!?. Nevertheless, you and your pals will reminisce about the future Hall of Famer’s humble beginnings, just before walking over to TD Garden to watch him tip his cap to the home crowd, one last time. You’ll finish off that second beer and depart, donning your no. 26 jersey, feeling like a king. And life will be really, really good.