This season the Indiana Pacers start Summer League play Friday at 3:00. This will be the first time they play in Las Vegas as the each NBA team will be participating.
These exhibition games are basically 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.
In part one, we looked at the rookies, Aaron Holiday and Alize Johnson, and what to watch for in their professional debuts.
Today, we look at the four players that were members of the Indiana Pacers last season: T.J. Leaf, Alex Poythress, Edmond Sumner and Ben Moore. All four of these players will be in the starting lineup joined by first-round pick Holiday and receive lots of minutes in Vegas. Ike Anigbogu will miss these exhibitions with an injury.
All of these guys have been working out in Indianapolis since the season ended and sound excited to show how they’ve improved and grown.
While it’s important to never overreact positively or negatively to anything that happens in these games, “veterans” in the summer league can make a difference in their careers in both bad and good ways:
- Solomon Hill played so poorly in his third Summer League by seemingly blowing it off that it may have pushed the Pacers to decline his team option for the fourth season on his rookie contract. It ended up working out pretty well for Hill as he played the best basketball of his life the last few months of that season and hit free agency during the madness of 2016 and got a $50+ million deal from the Pelicans (He hasn’t looked good since joining New Orleans).
- Glenn Robinson III played very well a few years ago in the Orlando Summer League and solidified his place in the rotation that season and had the best year of his career.
- Donald Sloan and Rasual Butler both earned roster spots on the team and their auditions both started at the Summer League.
You want to see these guys play above the competition having had the experience of a full season with an NBA team.
The Pacers 2017 first-round pick started the season as the backup power forward but a lack of strength and lateral quickness on defense eventually pushed him out of the rotation and Indiana added Trevor Booker late in the season which put the final nail in the coffin of any playing time for Leaf.
The former Bruin’s offensive skills are readily apparent when you watch him play. He’s a stretch four with a steady 3-point shot, making 18 of his 42 attempts in his rookie season (42.9%). He’s also shown ability to make plays off the dribble when defenders close out too hard and seems to be in the right place often for offensive rebounds. He knows how to put the ball in the basket and should be one of the leading scorers for the Pacers in Summer League play.
All the questions for Leaf are on the defensive end. Kevin Pritchard said after the draft that he expects Leaf, 21 years old, to play this season, but Indiana may be pushed to make a Booker-type move again now during free agency or in the middle of the season if he still doesn’t look ready to defend at the NBA level.
Leaf’s been putting in the work on his body since he was drafted, saying that’s added 25 pounds in muscle and thinks his first year was beneficial to his development despite not playing a whole lot.
“I’m a lot stronger, I’m faster, I can jump higher … just physically, I’m completely different than I was a year ago today,” Leaf said after one of the practices this week. “More confident, too. I’m extremely comfortable now with this NBA game. Even when you’re not playing, you’re watching. You’re practicing with these guys; you’re learning every day.”
Leaf is aware of the need for him to improve on defense, especially his positioning.
“I’ve definitely improved at (defense),” Leaf said. “I still have a lot of steps to go. I’m not going to say I’m there. I still have some work to do.”
How much he’s able to show he’s improved on that end of the court could make it easier for Pritchard and Head Coach Nate McMillan to be comfortable with him starting the season as the backup power forward. With Doug McDermott also coming off the bench and being a weak defender, it makes it that much more imperative that Leaf improve. If he struggles against these fringe-NBA players, the Pacers may be more likely to add a veteran in free agency.
As Leaf said, “Summer League is huge.”
Alex Poythress may be playing to keep his roster spot on the Pacers. He signed a 2-year deal with the Pacers last December, converting from a 2-way contract, but his contract doesn’t become fully guaranteed until July 25 once Summer League is over.
Poythress provided an energy boost in his limited chances to play in the rotation with more adequate defense than Leaf could provide but had trouble with fouling and didn’t contribute much on the offensive end.
“We’re all working hard to try and get minutes on the court,” Poythress said of the young Pacers that have been working out in Indy.
He averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds in 26 minutes with the Sixers over a 6-game stretch at the end of the 2016-17 season but never got that kind of opportunity last year with the Pacers, often saddled to the bench except for occasional garbage time minutes.
This was Poythress’s first nearly full season with an NBA team and he found value in it despite the lack of playing time, mentioning learning the “trades of the game” from veterans like Al Jefferson and Thad Young.
With the Mad Ants over seven games, he averaged 20 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists, but struggled with his 3-point shot at only 22.7%. One of the things you’d like to see him do in Vegas is shoot the ball more like he did with the Mad Ants the previous season (40.3%).
With limited roster spots available, he may be battling Alize Johnson for one of the final spots on the team. Especially if the Pacers do what they did last season and only start the season with 14 players, leaving one roster spot open.
“You always want a chance to get out there and play,” said Poythress when asked of Summer League’s importance, “but we also want to show what you’ve been working on this whole summer, you know?”
Playing his usual defense but without fouling and showing what he can do with a larger offensive role will be important for Poythress, who in his third season in the Summer League should look like an NBA veteran compared to many of the players he’ll be competing against.
Summer League coach Steve Gansey praised his ability to stretch the floor and play inside out from the four and five position, “That’s what’s going to make him stick in the NBA.”
Edmond Sumner signed a 2-year, 2-way contract last season as the Indiana Pacers were able to give their second-round pick a full year to rehab from an ACL injury and play in the G-League with the Mad Ants.
Now, he’s just starting to feel like he’s 100% again, saying that throughout last year his knee would feel good some days and other days not so much. His last game of the season for the Mad Ants was one of those good days as he scored 18 points in 21 minutes.
Overall, he didn’t play well for the Mad Ants, shooting below 40% from the field and just 25% from deep) as he was coming back from that injury. So, these Summer League games will be important for him to show what he can do at full strength and see if all of his athleticism that had given him some first-round draft buzz is still there. Sumner needs to show the team why they drafted him (or purchased the pick that drafted him) all over again.
“This is the first time the world is going to get to see me again since college,” Sumner said. “I want to go out there and prove myself all over again.”
Sumner’s physical profile is enticing as he stands 6’6″ at the point guard position. He’ll probably play a lot of the shooting guard with Holiday starting at the one in Las Vegas, but he’s another player than can grab and go if he gets a rebound and his size gives him rare defensive versatility at his position.
As he struggled to make shots and take care of the ball with the Mad Ants, that’ll be something to watch in Vegas. If he makes some wow plays with his athleticism that’ll be a good sign that he truly has recovered fully from his injury. Watching his lateral movement on his man defense will be important as well to see if he can keep quicker guards in front of him. Gansey mentioned that though he may look thin, he’s got some surprising strength as well.
With Holiday being drafted, it’s likely that Sumner will remain on his 2-way deal for this season, but a good showing here and in training camp will help make his case for a spot on the NBA roster next season when point guard spots on the team could be open.
Moore signed a 2-way deal with the Pacers after Poythress was added to the main roster. He was signed as an undrafted free agent after last season’s draft and has been with the organization in some fashion ever since.
Moore played some minutes in last season’s summer exhibitions but not a ton. This year, he’s starting. The biggest thing that he brings to the floor is defensive versatility; he can play and guard multiple positions and is the in-vogue type of defender that can switch onto any position and hold his own.
“Ben is a special tool in the toolbox is what I call him,” said Gansey, who coached him in Fort Wayne. “He can do a lot of things for us.”
His offense, while still a work in progress, is highlighted by his high basketball IQ and quick decision making. Moore plays the game the right way, makes the right pass and rarely makes bad choices with the ball. The thing that he couldn’t do coming out of college is shoot. He rarely took jumpers while at SMU at all, but last season with the Mad Ants he made 35% of his attempts from long distance on 54 attempts in 43 games. That’s a huge leap for Moore.
At 6’8″, he was undersized to continue playing as a center in the NBA and the Pacers have moved him to the small forward position. He talks about that transition here:
How much Moore, who played in 2 NBA games for the team last season, can contribute offensively will be the biggest thing to watch for him and will decide whether the Pacers offer him another 2-way contract, a spot in the G-League or even possibly a spot at the end of the Pacers roster. But for him, it’s all about doing the little things that don’t show up in the box score like setting good screens, moving the ball well and being in the right position on defense. He’s not a player that you can just look at his box score statistics and tell whether or not he played his role well.
The Pacers Summer League schedule commences on Friday at 3:00 p.m., continues on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and the final scheduled game before tournament play is on Monday at 5:00 p.m.