Celtics forward Jayson Tatum called Aaron Nesmith’s effort “incredible,” and said he is the type of player who would run through a wall if that’s what was needed. Jaylen Brown was equally impressed, but said that Nesmith plays with such a constant motor that he worries he might injure himself, or even take out a teammate with some friendly fire during one of his daring moments of recklessness.
When the Celtics selected Nesmith with the 14th overall pick of last year’s draft, it seemed they were looking to add perimeter scoring to a bench group that had been lacking it. Nesmith connected on 52.2 percent of his 3-pointers as a sophomore at Vanderbilt last season.
He has not always looked at ease operating beyond the arc in the NBA. Coach Brad Stevens said he needs to be comfortable on the catch so the rest can fall into place. But there are no such issues when it comes to effort, so when Nesmith gets chances, he will fly around the court as if there is a jet pack attached to his back.
“I’m just going out there 110 percent, trying to make any effort plays that I can, because I know every team needs effort plays,” Nesmith said. " Effort plays, 50/50 balls, that’s what wins ballgames. And so I’m going to go out there and put my body on the line in order to make a play happen.”
After getting scattered opportunities at the start of the year, Nesmith mostly fell out of the rotation at the start of April. But on Wednesday, with the Celtics in need of both an energy boost and a win, Stevens turned to Nesmith, and he responded with the best game of his rookie season. He finished with career highs of 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 blocks in 31 minutes, helping Boston to a 120-111 victory against the Hornets. He played the entire fourth quarter.
“I’ve said all along, he’s played hard and he’s worked really hard at it,” Stevens said. “As he’s gotten more practice time and game minutes here, the difference between his play now and when we were putting him in in January and February is night and day. So it’s encouraging. It’s not a huge surprise that he would progress this quickly.”
Many players collect steals by knocking the ball away with precise footwork and well-timed swipes. On Thursday, Nesmith’s efforts seemed more suited for a football field. In the first quarter, he jumped to contest an entry pass and knocked it away as he tumbled to the floor, igniting a Celtics fast break.
The next two steals came by breaking up long outlet passes that likely would have ended in Hornets layups if Nesmith did not bother to stop them. On the first one, he soared in and knocked the ball to Evan Fournier. On the second, he intercepted the pass himself. With his momentum carrying him toward the baseline and hulking Hornets forward P.J. Washington, Nesmith quickly flipped the ball to Tatum before barreling into Washington and tumbling back to the floor.
For a Celtics team that has often appeared listless during puzzling losses this year, these plays offered examples of the energy and effort that will be needed. And they probably will earn Nesmith more chances as the playoffs inch closer.
“He plays as hard as he can for as long as he’s out there, and it doesn’t go unnoticed,” Tatum said. “We need that from him and we appreciate it.”
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Celtics point guard Kemba Walker, who has missed the last two games with an oblique strain, is listed as doubtful for Friday’s game against the Spurs at TD Garden. Walker suffered the injury when he landed awkwardly after contesting a 3-pointer in the loss to the Hornets last Sunday. He immediately went to the locker room but returned soon after and played the rest of the game without issue.