As has been rehashed ad nauseum over the past week, what the Indiana Pacers were at the end of the 2015-16 season was very different from what they set out to be at the start of the team's training camp. A lesser discussed side note is that head coach Frank Vogel's mid-season decision to abort the team's emphasis on playing faster and smaller had an impact beyond his own squad.
"It's tough because I'm here and they're there," Mad Ants head coach Steve Gansey told the News Sentinel's Reggie Hayes prior to the All-Star break. "They're reverting and going back a little bit, and I wasn't there for that. We communicate and everything but I wish I had a week down there to be with those guys and see what their message is."
Electing not to call him up early in the season when Jordan Hill was out with a sore lower back and Myles Turner was sidelined with a chip fracture in his left thumb was a sure sign the Pacers were prioritizing Christmas' long-term development in Fort Wayne over short-term gains in Indy. Still, altering the team's playing style, with he and Shayne Whittington removed from the epicenter of change, made the likelihood of either player splitting minutes between the two clubs decidedly less likely.
How did Rakeem Christmas impress:
The 36th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft made his mark early in the D-League schedule when he was named Performer of the Week for games played from November 30 through December 6. Over that span of time, Christmas spearheaded a 3-0 week for the Mad Ants averaging 24.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks.
By February, the rookie's ability to use his athleticism to compensate for his smaller stature earned him a spot on the 2016 D-League All-Star team.
Christmas possesses a bit of a penchant for whistle hunting, but his speed driving out of the pick-and-roll and rolling to the basket allowed him to be effective on dunks (90.2%) and layups (62.1%). He also made the most of his 9-foot-2 standing reach to accentuate his above average instincts as a shot blocker.
That his usage rate (22.0%) remained comparable to his final season at Syracuse (26%) certainly reflects well on the new 1-to-1 relationship between between the Pacers and Mad Ants, but poorly on Christmas' efficiency. With his touches remaining relatively steady, the 24-year-old's true shooting percentage dropped from 62 percent as a senior in college to 53.4 percent with the Mad Ants.
In a considerably smaller role against tougher competition, NBA Projections estimates that Christmas would record 9.96 points and 6.68 rebounds on 44.3 percent shooting per 36 minutes with the Pacers.
How did Rakeem Christmas disappoint:
A decline in field goal percentage would be understandable and expected if Christmas were actively trying to extend his shooting range, but less than 30 percent of his shots this season were attempted from mid-range.
"We've been throwing him the ball in the post a little too much," Gansey told the New Sentinel's Reggie Hayes during the first week of February. "He needs to be able to work offensively without the ball in his hands in the post, because that's not what he's going to do with the Pacers. We're trying to fit him in a role that the Pacers see him as, and help them while he helps us."
Due to his 6-foot-9 frame, not making purposeful effort to hone his shooting touch from outside the painted area was a missed opportunity, as it would make transitioning to the NBA as an undersized center less of an uphill climb if his post-up game fails to translate against stronger more physical defenders. Instead, the soon-to-be sophomore's accuracy from this distance remained inconsistent at best:
His propensity to get himself into foul trouble is another area of concern worth monitoring. Out of 48 games played, Christmas racked up 5 or more fouls 19 times. Many of which were the product of reaching from behind or going over the top.
"It's still a process and he's got to continue to get better. He's still fouling a little too much," Mad Ants coach Steve Gansey told The Journal Gazette's Justin A. Cohn on February 10, after his starting center fouled out of back-to-back games. "It's the little ticky tack (fouls), swiping down and pushing and being a little bit too aggressive. It's frustrating for him."
What's next for Rakeem Christmas?
The Orlando Pro Summer League, where he will kick-off his first full off-season with the Indiana Pacers after competing with the Cleveland Cavaliers in Las Vegas last summer prior to being traded. Given that recency bias seemed to impact Indiana's decision to pass on exercising Solomon Hill's option last November, Rakeem Christmas should take note of the importance the Pacers apparently place on living up to expectations in Orlando when it comes to determining the upcoming season's depth chart. Because after allegedly struggling with his D-League assignment, the 24-year-old still has a lot to prove.
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