Aaron Nesmith made a major leap in both production and efficiency from his freshman to sophomore seasons at Vanderbilt, emerging as one of the nation’s best shooters on incredible volume prior to a foot injury that ended his season after 14 games. In that period, Nesmith hit a ridiculous 52.2 percent of his three pointers on 8.2 attempts per game, averaging 23 points a night for coach Jerry Stackhouse’s Commodores.
His leap in production from his freshman year, in which he averaged 11 points per game and hit just 33.7 percent of his threes, is something he credits to an offseason between coaches that allowed him to focus on improving his individual game, namely his shooting stroke. Nesmith went to work last summer, diving into film study on C.J. McCollum, Khris Middleton, Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick, and Ray Allen, and, as he says, “absolutely stripped their game down and tried to take anything I could from their game and put it into mine.”
The biggest takeaway for Nesmith from his film binge was the importance of footwork and ensuring that no matter the situation — catch-and-shoot, dribble-handoff, curling around an off-ball screen, stepback, and sidestep — his feet found their way to the same place.
“Footwork, footwork, footwork,” Nesmith says over a Zoom call. “And for me going into my sophomore year, that was the biggest change and the biggest thing I needed to make to improve my game on. I got that from watching those guys and watching their footwork coming off the off-ball screens and it made such a big difference for me shooting the basketball. Starting from the ground up, paying attention to all the little things, and at the end of the day that shot’s gonna go through at a consistent pace if you can get that footwork right.”
His film work wasn’t just focused on NBA greats, but also on himself, understanding that the only way you can truly make strides as a player is to be able to be self-critical and point out your weaknesses so you can work on them to, as he says, try to move those into the strengths category. It’s not always something players, especially young ones, are particularly willing to do. It requires a certain level of introspection and humility to understand that you can’t just keep building up your strengths. Those things you enjoy and are already good at will always be part of your game, but focusing chiefly on those and refusing to truly acknowledge and understand your weaknesses puts a cap on your ceiling as a player.
That mindset was shaped by some key influences, including Stackhouse as well as Kobe Bryant, whose show “Detail” helped him recognize the importance of pulling things from others and recognizing where others can help you grow.
“In my opinion, what separates a good player from a great player is that a great player is willing to learn from anybody and is willing to always call out his own mistakes,” Nesmith says. “So like, an example I give is Kobe Bryant and his show ‘Detail.’ Kobe Bryant was the type of person to learn from anybody. If anybody could give him some piece of advice, even if it was the 14th person off the bench, if he was a phenomenal shooter Kobe Bryant would study whatever he did to help improve his game in that shooting aspect. So just always having that mindset and having the mindset to learn and be a sponge. I would say that is definitely the difference maker.”
That desire to be a sponge paid dividends when he got the chance to play for Stackhouse, an 18-year veteran of the NBA who had previously served as an assistant coach in Toronto and Memphis, as well as as the head coach for Toronto’s G League affiliate. The wealth of knowledge Stackhouse could provide Nesmith as both a player and a coach who had seen what it takes for players to ingratiate themselves at the NBA level was invaluable in Nesmith’s transformation as a player and how he saw the game.
Nesmith says he learned how to be a professional from Stackhouse, recognizing the importance of every aspect of the game, from working out and practicing at game speed to becoming better at picking apart his film to identify consistent mistakes and work on how to fix them. For Stackhouse, he couldn’t help but be impressed at the work ethic of Nesmith and his ability to take criticism and coaching and apply it to his game to make necessary improvements.
“He’s just one of those kids who works his butt off,” Stackhouse says on a Zoom call. “You’re not going to outwork him. He’s going to stay in the gym as long as you want him to – or even after you want him to leave he’s still going to stay a little bit longer. I think he embraced all of it. He embraced his time of critiquing. He takes coaching well. He was the brunt of some pretty vicious film sessions. So for him to talk about those film sessions is great. It just lets you know that he wants to get better and he did get better. Defensively, early on, he was getting beat middle a lot. That’s one of the staples of who we want to be defensively and as the season gone on those numbers went down and he was really trending in the right direction before he got hurt.”
Over the course of a summer, Nesmith was able to transform himself into one of the country’s elite shooters, but he understands the job is far from over. He still has to hone his craft and knows that his reputation as a shooter now precedes him, meaning he has to continue refining his shooting skills both on and off the ball to get shots up in the tiny windows that he’s given.
“You’re not going to get standstill shots all the time, especially a shooter like myself and a shooter of my prowess,” Nesmith says. “I’m not going to get a chance to catch and shoot the ball wide open many times a game. So I had to really practice shooting on the move, and in order to do that at a high level and make sure that translates into the ball game, I’ve got to do that at game speed. You look at a guy like Duncan Robinson, he’s flying all over the court from side-to-side and constantly running off of handoffs and all the screens, so I’ve got to be able to do that exact same thing and do it at as fast a level I can to come to a complete stop and knock that three-pointer down.”
Shooting is the skill that will get him to the NBA, but he has designs on being much more than just a three-point marksman. Among those All-Stars he’s studied over and over is Middleton, who started his career as a role player, found a niche in Milwaukee as a shooter and defender, and evolved into one of the league’s best two-way wings. In a way, Middleton’s pre-draft profile reads as the opposite of Nesmith, as he was a good on-ball scorer but had major question marks as a spot-up shooter, before making that his signature trait early in his Bucks tenure. In his time in Milwaukee, Middleton’s evolved as an on-ball threat, with a silky midrange and most recently has become a much more adept playmaker and facilitator for others.
That path is one Nesmith looks at closely, recognizing the importance of constantly evolving one’s game by putting in the work necessary to excel in the role asked of you while also moving some of those weaknesses into the strengths category so that, eventually, you can take the next step as a player.
“[Middleton’s] become a phenomenal ball-handler, phenomenal on the pick-and-roll, phenomenal guy for the Milwaukee Bucks – a go-to guy in the fourth quarter who makes big shot,” Nesmith says. “So he’s no longer that one dimensional player of going to play defense and running off ball screens. He’s grown, he’s become a better overall basketball player, but it didn’t happen overnight. This is like his eighth year in the NBA. It takes time, it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication. But he’s put that work in. He’s put that sweat equity in and he’s where he deserves to be. So that’s definitely the goal for me. I want to get to that kind of level and I want to expand my game in the same way he has.”
For Nesmith, he knows it means diversifying his offensive skillset by being a more capable ball-handler and creating for himself, and by taking his natural size and strength at 6’6, 215 pounds and putting his energy and effort into being a better defender. He readily and happily points out those weaknesses because, for him, they mean a chance to focus his work and spend more time in the gym.
His energy when talking about the work is contagious. He’s embraced what has become an interminable Draft process that has worn on some other prospects, because he sees it as an opportunity. Once again, he’s been afforded an extended period to work on himself and his game. He’s gotten more feedback and criticism of his game for teams, which have asked him to work on his offensive arsenal and being a weapon with the ball in his hands so he can attack hard closeouts and make the right play either for himself or for teammates while the defense is scrambling. On the defensive end, he points to conditioning and making sure that he’s always at his physical best so he can take advantage of his strength and size.
When Stackhouse has talked to teams, he says he’s made it a point to “make sure they understand he’s more than just a shooter.” Vanderbilt asked him to be an off-ball player because he was the absolute best they had at that and, as Stackhouse says, they wanted him to be the one on the end of passes more often than not. In the NBA, he believes he’ll be able to take those next steps to become a more well-rounded player simply out of the opportunity to do so, and knowing that Nesmith is going to put in the work to necessary to get there.
In the immediate, Nesmith is ready to come in and impact his new team in whatever way he can and play whatever role he’s asked.
“I could be coming in from Day 1 and be asked to play 20 minutes a game and do certain number of things and whatever is asked of me to do from my coach, I’ve got to be able to do that to the best of my ability,” Nesmith says. “Or if I play five minutes a game and my numbers come back and I’m only on there to dive for loose balls and be an energy guy, I’ve got to do that to the best of my ability. Or if I don’t play at all and I’ve got to be a cheerleader for the guys who are on the floor, I’ve got to be able to do that to the best of my ability. Just star in my role, whatever role is necessary to help the team winning. So, that’s something I got from Coach Stackhouse and something I’ve gotten from just watching a whole lot of NBA basketball and my time playing basketball. Especially having a losing season my freshman season at Vanderbilt, just learning what it takes to win. Those little things matter. Starring in your role, because if everybody does their job, you’ll win basketball games.”
It’s a mindset not every player is able to have entering the NBA, as they’ve been a star on every team throughout their young career, but it speaks to the belief Nesmith has in himself and the work he’ll put in to elevate from whatever role he starts in to become a great player at the NBA level. Wednesday night will determine what team will be getting him and whoever that is they’ll taking him to be a shooter, but he has designs on becoming so much more.