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Christmas, Whittington make season debuts with Mad Ants

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It may only be November, but with the rookie averaging 21.5 points and 8.0 rebounds, the Christmas season already appears to be in full-swing in Fort Wayne.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Rakeem Christmas made his D-League debut with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants last weekend, while Shayne Whittington began his second stint with Indiana's affiliate in what is expected to be an extended assignment for both players. The Mad Ants swept their opening weekend, coming away with consecutive victories against the Raptors 905 and advancing to 2-0 on the season.

Not unlike their parent club, it was evident from the tip of Saturday's game that the Mad Ants will be putting extra emphasis on spacing this season, as Whittington, 6-foot-11, spent the majority of both games on the perimeter being utilized as a long-range pick-and-pop shooter and, occasionally, even as a trailer. Despite having struggled to find a consistent rhythm with his shooting, the power forward turned stretch-four is leading the team in three-point field goal attempts through two games.

Though he came up empty on all nine of his three-point attempts on Saturday before connecting on 44.4 percent of his looks from distance on Sunday, the second-year Pacer appeared reluctant to drive the basketball when given the opportunity and was only sparsely given opportunities in the post or in hand-off situations.

On the weekend, Whittington averaged 10 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 3 steals on 24.1 percent shooting.The 24-year-old stole the ball on the 905's final possession which set the stage for Xavier Thames to make a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer on Opening Night. The Mad Ants allowed just 87.3 points per 100 possessions when Whittington was on the floor.

Taking up residence in the paint, Rakeem Christmas's shot chart is every bit the antithesis of Whittington's. Christmas exhibits the mentality of a true post-up player. In both contests, he established position early and often, and got into the chest of his opponent. On Saturday, the Raptors 905 center, Lucas Noguiera, had committed four personal fouls before the end of the third quarter mostly as a direct result of Christmas' physicality.

With 20 field goal attempts at the rim, the rookie had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate the full range of his interior game (spin moves to the middle, hook shots, and putbacks), but he also appeared comfortable in the pinch post as he knocked down elbow and midrange jumpers out of the screen-and-roll.

With Larry Bird in attendance on Sunday, Christmas recorded 19 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks on 53.3 percent shooting.

"Rak is a big, strong athletic big man, and you can see why he's in the NBA. He can run and he's got a nice post game," Mad Ants coach Steve Gansey told the Journal Gazette's Justin A. Cohn. "And that he was going against those bigs (Lucas Nogueira, Bruno Coboclo and Keanau Post) the past two days, it really helped him and helped his confidence. He hadn't played a lot of minutes in preseason with the Pacers ... and to see him go against somebody and have success, it's great."

Even with Christmas exceeding expectations and Myles Turner expected to miss extended time with a chip fracture in his left thumb, head coach Frank Vogel says the team has not yet discussed recalling either assignee from the D-League.

Whittington and Christmas did not average 20 combined minutes over Indiana's 7-game preseason slate. They are each averaging over 30 with the Mad Ants. Which indicates that, at least for now, the Pacers are valuing player development over emergency depth.