This season the Indiana Pacers will be playing in the Las Vegas Summer League for the first time, joining all the other 29 NBA teams as well.
These exhibition games are meaningless but not without purpose, especially for the players with varying motivations: proving their worth as a recent draft pick, looking to show how much they’ve improved from their previous season, or just hoping to show they belong in the NBA whether with a roster spot, a 2-way contract or a training camp invite.
In this series of articles coming before Summer League begins for Indiana on Friday, we’ll take a look at many of the players on the roster and what they will be looking to prove in Sin City.
For the Pacers 2018 draft picks, Aaron Holiday and Alize Johnson, this will be the first impresssion that many fans have of each player. Rookies are always the main attraction during Summer League so let’s start with them.
The Pacers first-round pick is lined up to be the third point guard for the Indiana Pacers, essentially filling the role of recently waived Joe Young. With the addition of Tyreke Evans, the path to playing time isn’t apparent in his rookie season except as a spot player when injuries occur.
But, next season, everyone that sits in front of him in the depth chart will be a free agent. If Holiday wants to show the Pacers front office that he deserves a chance at a consistent role next year, these Summer League games will be one of his best chances to show it.
“Having a young player in the pipeline that can develop and learn from those two guys this year gives us a little bit of comfort in knowing that we have a player at that position,” said Buchanan. “That’s going to be a need next summer.”
A full breakdown of Holiday can be found here:
Holiday can shoot the ball. That’s his greatest strength. You want to see Holiday continue do this against this pseudo-NBA-level competition, but this isn’t all he needs to show if he wants to push for playing time now and in the future.
Other than knocking down shots, you want to see how Holiday does with finishing at the rim. With his below average height, that could be one of his biggest challenges at the NBA level. He was just average in college inside, finishing at the 49th percentile. Seeing how he commands the offense as a point guard and distributes the ball will also be important.
Defense, however, is where I’ll be paying most of my attention to Holiday in Vegas.
That end of the court is where Holiday has plenty to prove. The Pacers like his defensive ability but draft experts seemed to be more split on his ability.
“He’s a bulldog defender,” Pritchard said. “He’s as tough as they get. When we talk about players, the first thing we talk about is, is he tough. And he’s that.”
Pritchard praised his ability to turn the ball handler in the backcourt, so it’ll be interesting to see if he guards people full court this week.
The biggest question is whether he can keep quick guards in front of him. It’s hard to get a complete read on defense for guys in the Summer League as effort can be lacking at times, but if he can keep his man out of the paint that’ll be a good sign.
Alize Johnson was the Pacers second-round pick at 50th overall. While Pritchard has said that he doesn’t expect him to play much, if at all, next year, this is Johnson’s first chance to change his mind. Johnson could realistically be on the roster next season or be a candidate for a 2-way contract.
The expectations for a pick that late in the draft are low, but he has a chance to rise above them.
“When you’re picking that deep in the draft, the likelihood of that player succeeding, the percentages are certainly working against him,” Pacers GM Chad Buchanan said after the draft, “so you look for like one trait or one skill that a guy possesses that would give him a chance. And Alize has two things for me; he has tremendous motor, and he just has an innate ability to track down rebounds.”
At Missouri State, Johnson averaged 11.6 rebounds per game and had one of the highest rebounding rates in the entire country. He’s only 6’8″ and doesn’t have a tremendous wingspan or leaping ability; he has natural instincts for grabbing boards.
“It’s just something you can’t teach,” his MSU coach Paul Lusk told Sports Illustrated. “He pursues the ball and has a strong determination to get it. He’s a good athlete, but he’s not a guy who’s getting both elbows above the rim, nor is he a guy who has an unbelievably long wingspan. Guys that maybe get two elbows above the rim, [Johnson] will get it over them every day of the week. It’s a special ability he has.”
When Johnson gets the rebound, he has the ability to grab it and immediately lead the break thanks to guard skills he developed as a much shorter player in high school, growing from 5’9″ eventually to 6’8″.
“I have to do things different,” Johnson said after one of the practices this week. “Being the underdog I have to show some things that I can do consistently. Rebounding is effort. I’m all about hard work and getting into the gyms. Not really being the most athletic person, but just having the grit to go up there every time and get it is something that’s still in my blood. I have siblings back home and a family rooting for me, so when I’m up there grabbing rebounds, that’s what I’m doing it for.”
Pacers Summer League and Mad Ants Head Coach Steve Gansey has told his players to sprint upcourt when Johnson grabs a rebound and let him bring up the ball according to Mark Montieth. It’s something you see highlighted here in this Draft Express video from his Junior season.
As shown in this video, Johnson does still have plenty to improve upon when it comes to his dribble skills. He can generally only drive in one direction with his dominant right hand (92% of his drives went right that season), but when he gets out in transition he does a nice job of finding guys for assists as well.
On the defensive end, he also has some versatility and can guard multiple positions on switches, a more and more in vogue ability for players in the NBA. He’s very much a tweener forward, possessing some of the skills of a small forward and some of a power forward, but that’s doesn’t have nearly the negative connotation that it once did. It’ll be interesting to see what positions he plays this week as the Pacers don’t really have a center and are going with an undersized group.
The offensive end is where most of the questions lie for Johnson. He shot 39% his previous season at Missouri State, but only 28% in his final collegiate season. His shot is consistent because of a “mechanical flaw” where his elbow is very flared out to the side and makes his release be a little slow. How he shoots against live competition might help make the Pacers decision about whether to have him on the roster or keep him in the G-League on a 2-way deal for his rookie season.
Johnson’s working hard on his shot and says he puts up as many as 500 shots before practice, but it’s unclear if he’s working on changing the mechanics of his form to this point. In this pre-draft workout video, he was making his shots often but the form looked about the same as it was in college.
His high motor at the draft combine had him lighting up the competition as he put up 25 points, 19 rebounds and 8 assists in one of the scrimmages.
And he’s played well against some of the elite prospects in his draft class as well, earning MVP honors at the Adidas Nations event where Michael Porter Jr., Mikal Bridges and others also attended.
If he continues to play that well against the competition at Summer League, it could be the first sign that he’s a potential steal in the draft. He may look a lot like Jimmy Butler with his hair style, but no reason to put anywhere near those kind of expectations on him. #24 will be an interesting player to watch.
The Indiana Pacers Summer League schedule starts on Friday at 3:00 on NBA TV, all the games are also available on the ESPN app. The other scheduled games before the tournament starts are on Saturday at 3:30 and on Monday at 5:00.
Next up, we’ll talk about the returning Pacers playing in Summer League this year: T.J. Leaf and Alex Poythress, along with last year’s 2-way players Edmond Sumner and Ben Moore. Ike Anigbogu will not be playing due to injury.