Indiana Pacers start their Summer League play on Saturday in Las Vegas. It’s a chance to see the rookies Goga Bitadze (if his visa issues are worked out) and Brian Bowen II for the first time in the blue and gold and to watch for a lot of the team’s younger players (Aaron Holiday, Edmond Sumner, and Alize Johnson) in larger roles than the normally have as they try to make their case for more playing time.
The results of the games may be meaningless but you can gain some insight by what happens during them. It’s always important to never overreact to anything good or bad during Summer League. A good week in Vegas doesn’t mean a player is destined for stardom and a bad week doesn’t mean they are doomed to be a bust. It can be a positive or negative sign for the player’s career certainly but it’s not definitive proof one way or another.
These games do have real consequences. Solomon Hill is the biggest example of that for the Pacers. Hill played so poorly in his third trip to the Orlando Summer League in 2015 that it likely factored into the team’s choice to decline the team option on the fourth season of his rookie contract. It ended up working out great for Hill, who ended up with a huge payday from the Pelicans after a half season of solid shooting, but these games help inform team’s decisions and guys are playing for their NBA lives in many cases.
The Pacers are scheduled for four games in Las Vegas and will play a minimum of five games, depending on how they do once tournament play begins. Many of the players that are likely to be on Indiana’s roster may only play those first four games, perhaps only three.
- Saturday, July 6: Grizzlies at 7:00 p.m. on NBATV
- Monday, July 8: Pistons at 5:00 p.m. on ESPNU
- Tuesday, July 9: Hawks at 5:30 p.m. on NBATV
- Thursday, July 11: Raptors at 6:00 p.m. on NBATV
The Pacers first-round pick hasn’t been able to practice with the rest of the Summer League squad because of visa issues, but the hope is that he’ll be able to meet the team in Las Vegas to play at least a few games.
This would be the first chance for most Pacers fans to see the rookie in game action since he played professionally in Europe. In Europe, he was dominant as a teenager. He won the Adriatic League MVP award in 2019 and won the EuroLeague Rising Star and Adriatic League Top Prospect awards as well.
On offense, Bitadze is a great roll man on the pick and roll and shows potential to be able to pop for jumpers as well. Ben Pfeifer of 8 points, 9 seconds covers his offensive skill-set here.
Defensively, his calling card is his rim protection. He averaged 3.2 blocks in just 25.7 minutes per game during his stint in the EuroLeague and 2.5 blocks per game in the Adriatic League. He potentially gives the Pacers the option of having some that can defend in the paint for 48 minutes every night along with Myles Turner.
Two things to watch on that end is whether he can defend without fouling (a common issue for young bigs) and how well he does if he defends on the perimeter. The Stepien wrote that while he has improved a lot this past season, his lateral mobility could still be an issue in this great overall look at his game. He’ll most likely play drop coverage in the pick and roll this week, but if he gets switched onto smaller defenders it’ll be interesting to see how he does with defending in space.
Holiday has been penciled into a rotation role this season after flashes of promise whenever he was given an opportunity during his rookie year. The Pacers added TJ McConnell but it would be surprising if he was brought on to be anything other than a third-string floor general. Indiana believes in Holiday and needs to get him minutes.
“You know, Aaron’s the quarterback out there,” Pacers Summer League and Mad Ants head coach Steve Gansey told the IndyStar. “… One of the things we kind of talked about earlier was him picking up a little bit of full court. That’s going to be his role, getting guys coming in off that bench and that’s what we’re trying to showcase.”
With Holiday, the most interesting thing to watch for is how well he runs the offense. Last year, he typically played off the ball while either Darren Collison or Cory Joseph ran the show. In his first Summer League, Holiday struggled with turnovers and some inaccurate passing. A lot of the problems might have just been a lack familiarity with his teammates, but with a year in the NBA under his belt and some experience playing with Sumner and Johnson, you’d like to see the turnovers go down this second time around.
In the regular season, he showed flashes of playmaking ability for others but also had some of the standard rookie issues with decision making. He was pretty good at finding open guys in the corner when the defense tried to stray too far and had some impressive passes from the opposite end of the floor.
When he did make a poor decision, he was great at making up for it on the other end with his athleticism.
He made a lot of these ‘wow’ plays on the defensive end, but in Summer League, I’ll be most interested in how well he fights over screens and stays in front of other point guards over these four games.
Fresh off a new 3-year contract with Indiana, Sumner looks like he’ll at least have a rotation role until Victor Oladipo is back from injury. On a 2-way contract for most of last season, he starred for the Mad Ants averaging 22.1 points per game and was a vast improvement over his rookie season when he was still recovering from a torn ACL injury suffered in college.
During his limited minutes with the Pacers, Sumner often struggled to find his rhythm and his shooting percentages were putrid over his small sample size (34.4/25.9/65.2). This did improve over time however as he started the season 7 for 29 (24%) overall but made 15 of his last 35 shots (42.9%). Same can be said for his 3-pointer. After making just 1 of his first 11 attempts, he made 6 of his final 16 (37.5%).
He showed a lot of potential, particularly in the pre-season last year and in the final game of the season when he scored a career-high 22 points, and has enough versatility to play three positions and defend them as well. He turned the ball over a lot in Fort Wayne as is assist to turnover ratio was 3.8:3.1. Watching how well he takes care of the ball will be important if he’s able to do more on offense when given the chance this season.
“His ability to guard multiple positions is huge,” Gansey said after a practice this week of last season’s second-round draft pick. “He’s been working on his outside shot and it’s more fluid. I’m expecting him to do big things. He can handle it, he can pass. I’m just trying to showcase him as much as we can.”
Johnson spent most of his rookie year in Fort Wayne and put up gaudy numbers: 19.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists on a 50.7/37.9/74.2 shooting line over 36 minutes per game. He was a focal point in the Mad Ants offense. They’d run plays through him in the post and he was adept at finding open shooters.
While his scoring skill set may not translate well to the NBA, there’s long been a clear role that he could fill if given the opportunity: outwork everyone on the glass, gobble up rebounds on both ends, and defend both forward positions and guards off of switches. If he adds a consistent 3-point shot to that, he’s got a real shot at success in the league. 37.9% on decent volume with the Mad Ants is a good sign. How fluid and consistent that shot looks in Summer League will be something to watch.
His best skill is his rebounding and relentlessness on the glass. Look for whether he chases each and every offensive rebound or if he’s more aware of when he should go for them and when he should just get back on defense.
Brian Bowen II
Bowen signed a 2-way contract with the Indiana Pacers after going undrafted. He had an opportunity to be drafted by a few teams in the draft but only as a 2-way contract guy, so he declined so he could choose what team to sign that type of contract with.
Bowen was once a highly touted recruit but lost his NCAA eligibility at Louisville because of an FBI investigation involving Adidas and large amounts of money going to Bowen’s family. It all added up to a lost year for Bowen, who then played last season in Australia.
He didn’t impress a whole lot in his limited minutes but this is the perfect use of a 2-way contract by Indiana. Take a flier on a player that was a McDonald’s All-American on two years ago. He’ll be someone to keep an eye on in Vegas.
The other guys looking for their chance in the NBA
JaKeenan Gant signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Pacers that gives a guaranteed bonus of $50,000. He may be in training camp with Indiana and end up playing for the Mad Ants.
Markis McDuffie of Wichita State will try to be an undrafted success like former teammate Fred VanVleet. He averaged 18.2 points per game on 40.8% shooting as a senior in his first chance at a lead offensive role in college
Shizz Alston Jr is another senior that went undrafted. At Temple, he averaged 19.7 points and 5 assists and made over 90% of his free throws in his final season.
Jay Henderson is a workout partner with Victor Oladipo and has appeared on the VO Show. He was on Louisville’s roster for a couple years playing sparingly but hasn’t played anywhere since 2016-17.
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell played sparingly in seven games for the Denver Nuggets last season while on a 2-way contract. He played in two G-League games and averaged 24.5 points per game but spent most of the year playing overseas.
Cody Demps has spent the last two years in the G-League. He averaged 11.8 points per game last season with the Stockton Kings.
Jaylen Johnson, a small forward out of Louisville, averaged 8.7 points in 16 minutes per game in the G-League last season.
MiKyle McIntosh averaged 10.8 points per game with the Raptors G-League franchise.
Travin Thibodeaux scored 5.9 points per game in his first season with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants last year.