One of the best ways for a small market team to get better from year to year is improvement from their young players. The Indiana Pacers made a lot of changes to the roster and made valuable additions over the summer via trade and free agency but there’s some open rotation spots that will be filled by some unproven prospects.
Opportunities are open for the taking especially while Victor Oladipo is out. Young players like Aaron Holiday, T.J. Leaf, Edmond Sumner, and Goga Bitadze could all be part of the bench unit early in the season but which players on the roster could be poised for a mini-breakout?
Holiday is penciled in as the backup point guard but he’s got a lot to prove about being ready to run an NBA offense after mostly playing off the ball in his rookie season. He struggled to efficiently produce and take care of the ball in Summer League but it’s hard to judge any player too harshly based on those exhibition games especially with a roster with both a lack of shooting and size.
Holiday probably has the biggest opportunity in terms of minutes among the players here but he has an experienced veteran guard behind him in T.J. McConnell if he falters. McConnell sung his praises at the Pacers annual golf outing that happens before training camp.
“Aaron Holiday is a great leader and he’s showing how good he is,” McConnell said of how the second-year player has looked in workouts. “I really respect him and I’m excited to be his teammate.”
Holiday showed plenty of promise in his sporadic playing time last year but eventually he’ll have to show he can consistently make shots at this level. His number one skill when he was drafted was his shot but he struggled as a rookie shooting just 40.1% from the field and an okay 33.9% from deep. He did show strong finishing ability in year one making 60% of his shots near the rim. Playing more consistently may help the shot be more consistent as well.
The Pacers longest-tenured T.J. has been receiving compliments from many teammates at how he’s looked much improved during informal workouts and pickup games.
Newcomer Malcolm Brogdon said that Leaf has been “dominating” in those pre-training camp games and Myles Turner has heard the rumblings of Leaf’s leap as well.
“I’ve heard T.J.’s taken a big step,” Turner said at Media Day. “I’ve heard T.J.’s been playing real well and looking real well. He looks stronger, he looks bigger.”
Turner also noted that this looks like Leaf’s first real opportunity for consistent minutes after playing a short role as the 10th man in his first two seasons.
“I think T.J.’s one of those guys who has hasn’t necessarily had the opportunity that I think he deserves,” Turner said. “There’s a number of reasons that have gone into that, but I think T.J.’s someone who is going to be able to step up this year. I think this is going to be his time.”
He doesn’t have a ton of competition for that backup power forward spot currently. Alize Johnson and Jakarr Sampson could be vying for playing time if he struggles but it’s Leaf’s spot to lose. He’s more likely to lose time by the Pacers choosing to go small with his first-name counterpart T.J. Warren or perhaps Justin Holiday.
Leaf is another player where you would like to see his shot go down with more consistency. He shot it well in limited playing time during his rookie season at 42.9% but that dropped to 25.8% in year two but he didn’t take many threes in either year. He mentioned that he’s looking to add more arc to his shot. Hopefully that’s something where he looks more comfortable and confident with this season. Being able to stretch the floor would be a big plus in him finding ways to make a positive impact on the floor.
He’s always been a terrific natural offensive rebounder and has a nice ability to finish at the rim in creative ways with either hand. He still struggles defensively but did grow considerably from his first to his second season. While you may have already written off Leaf as a bust, he’s been working hard to show he can be a rotation player in the league and this will be his biggest chance to prove it.
Leaf knows that his hard work doesn’t matter if he can’t produce when his chance comes.
“But it doesn’t matter what you did in the offseason,” Leaf told reporters at Media Day, “it matters when you put it together on the court.”
Sumner has the most competition in his way for potential minutes of the players discussed so far but in the team’s first training camp practice he was the backup shooting guard ahead of free-agent signee Justin Holiday. We’ll see if that continues as the preseason slate begins today in India against the Sacramento Kings.
He had a lot of camp hype last season but there hasn’t been as much buzz on Sumner to this point. Last preseason is when he started to show what he could be capable of and while he played sparingly with the NBA team, he dominated G-League play. His defensive versatility is probably the most exciting aspect of his game currently at the NBA level as he can defend positions 1-3.
The Pacers believe in Sumner’s potential enough that they extended his contract and gave him a bit of a raise this off-season and this could be his biggest chance to show he’s worth the small bet.
If he plays well enough, he could even end up playing over Doug McDermott once Oladipo comes back and Jeremy Lamb moves back to the bench. Seeing how much playmaking duties he has will be something to watch as he ran the offense for the Mad Ants but struggled with taking care of the ball. Most of his minutes with the Pacers last year saw him mostly standing in the corner as the last option.
It’s starting to feel like we’re never going to actually see Bitadze play in a Pacers uniform. The Summer Pacers desperately needed him to be more entertaining and competitive but visa issues kept him in his home country until just before the team was done playing in Las Vegas. Now, he sprained his ankle in one of the first practices and will miss the opening preseason game. Hopefully, we’ll get our first glimpse at the Pacers first-round pick tomorrow in the second game in India where Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are both likely to sit out and plenty of minutes will be available at the center position.
While Bitadze is a rookie, he has much greater experience than most 19-year-old big men entering the league as he’s been playing professional basketball in Europe since he was 16. He was both lovable and dominant in Europe and while he’s already been able to showcase his lovable side with his personality in interviews, he’s yet to be able to see how dominant he can be at this level.
The worst thing anyone has said about Bitadze since being picked up is that he still has work to do covering the pick and roll on defense, something that’s an adjustment for every young center and to be expected. McMillan has said multiple times that they don’t see him as a project and that they expect him to play right away. He’s been praised for his great skill, his shooting ability, and his shot blocking.
He may not play a ton of minutes at first as he learns his defensive responsibilities and Leaf gets a heavy chunk of the backup big minutes but watching how those minutes are divided up as the year goes on will be interesting to watch.
Alize Johnson: He’s still buried behind multiple players and a path to playing time just isn’t there without an injury but there will always be a possible role for him to fill on an NBA team if given the chance thanks to his rebounding ability. He can be the fifth option in an offense that gets a few points via crashing the offensive glass and gobbles up rebounds on the defensive end as well. He can defend four positions well enough and is great at pushing the pace when he gets a rebound and finding the right open man in transition.
Naz Mitrou-Long: Dakota Schmidt of Ridiculous Upside examined his game here.
JaKarr Sampson: Tony East of Forbes took a look at him here.