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Pacers’ bench may no longer be a complete dreg on the starters

Indiana’s bench finished the preseason solidly in the black, maybe they’re finally on the upswing?

NBA: Preseason-Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The games didn’t count for anything, but Indiana’s reserves posted an aggregate bench net rating of plus-8.6 points per 100 possessions during the team’s four-game preseason slate, a mark which ranked above league average. Albeit, mediocrity typically isn’t something to aspire toward; however, for the Pacers, surpassing that threshold is noteworthy.

Think of it this way, even a modest hill can be something to behold when located amid the plains of the Midwest. While keeping that analogy in mind, consider that Indiana’s bench only managed to break even twice over the entirety of the Paul George-era, topping out at plus-2.8 during his lost season when widespread injuries blurred the lines between the first and second units.

As opposed to last season, when only the benches of the Sixers (minus-6.0) and Magic (minus-11.1) were worse than that of the Pacers (minus-4.6), the early fit of Indiana’s reserves certainly appears less awkward.

Lance Stephenson, who went an impressive 7-of-9 on the field goals he attempted as the pick and roll ball-handler, led all bench scorers in his fresh role as sixth man with 13.3 points per contest. T.J. Leaf scored an eye-popping 1.227 points per possession, which placed him in the (small sample size alert!) 91st percentile, and while Domantas Sabonis only shot 33.3 percent from three on a measly three attempts, he’s capable of scoring in a variety of ways around the basket and won’t be the complete non-threat beyond the arc that Lavoy Allen, Kevin Seraphin, and Al Jefferson each were last season.

Not-so-shockingly, taking and making more threes is arguably the biggest difference between this group and it’s whirling vortex-like predecessor.

Leaf’s hot shooting is obviously a factor, here. He connected on an absolutely absurd 62.5 percent of his attempts from three during the preseason. There’s no way that number is sustainable, but continuing to appear unfazed by his transition to the league’s longer distance needs to be. Especially if simple actions such as Detroit’s Anthony Tolliver cutting backdoor off the give-and-go continue to test his sketchy defensive awareness and lateral quickness during his first season as a still-maturing 20-year-old.

Without much depth at reserve power fauxward, there doesn’t need to be any excuse to reconsider inserting Al Jefferson into the rotation. His weight loss won’t change his anachronistic playing style, and it hasn’t altered his energy on defense as was evidenced by his contentedness to allow Boban Marjanovic to bury him repeatedly in the restricted area during his lone start against the Pistons.

More importantly, doing so would displace Sabonis from the position by which he’s appeared more naturally suited. He doesn’t defend above the rim, but he’s an instinctive screen setter capable of rolling hard toward the basket, finding shooters with skip passes, and knocking down an occasional three.

"He sets the screen, the pocket pass is there, and it's a bucket," Stephenson told’s Mark Monteith. "And the team respects him. When he rolls, everybody shifts, you have all type of stuff open, so you have to make the smart play every time.

"He can catch it, he can pass, he can do it all."

All of which is to say that pairing the 21-year-old backup, who finished a team-best plus-26 in 27 minutes during his team’s preseason finale, with Leaf’s stretch shooting isn’t only affording Lance Stephenson the space he needs to turn the corner, hit the screener, and eventually find shooters like Glenn Robinson III on the perimeter. It’s serving the dual-purpose of allowing both young players the opportunity they need to grow while making the bench more modern and, as of now, functional.

It has been a long time coming.