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On Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, together as well as apart

Indiana has two talented 21-year-old bigs who play the same position differently, so what’s next?

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Original images via Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Not much has worked in Myles Turner’s favor to start the 2017-18 season. From entering the concussion protocol after only one game and being limited to eating and sleeping for two weeks thereafter to observing his supposed understudy blossom in his stead, the 21-year-old shot blocker with the feathery mid-range jump shot has yet to consistently be put in the position to develop as the focal point of the offense that many expected him to readily become following the trade of Paul George.

Instead, the franchise heir apparent has touched the ball less on average than 15 other starting centers, including three tightly contested fourth quarters in which he attempted fewer than two field goals.

All the while, he hasn’t exactly demonstrated many signs of season-over-season growth. Thus far, his ratio of mid-range shots to 3-point attempts (2.5) hasn’t dramatically dropped from a season ago (2.9), his recognition of floor spacing after making a pass or setting a screen has been touch-and-go, and he still has a tendency to settle for turnaround jump shots predominantly over his right shoulder when guards are defending him in the low-post.

In that regard, overthinking has been his greatest adversary in the season’s early going.

Notice here, for instance, how Turner’s feet weren’t even square to the basket before he opted to take this quick, face-up shot against noted defensive stalwart James Harden after catching the ball in the high-post.

Unsurprisingly, all of this has combined to shine a progressively brighter spotlight on the noticeable differences between Indiana’s pair of 22-and-under bigs with each subsequent win in the team’s current streak.

Of course, what happened against the Detroit Pistons didn’t help. The Pacers were trailing by 19 points when Myles Turner exited the game, and they won by seven with Sabonis playing the rest of the way.

In part, the latter was the benefactor of being on the floor when plenty of improbable things went down, but the outcome was still reflective of the way in which Sabonis manages to make an impact when his shot (4-of-11), like Turner’s (3-of-13), doesn’t fall.

“He makes a big difference,” Stephenson said of playing with Sabonis, as was reported by Derek Kramer of “When he’s on the floor, he’s screening and when he gets the ball in the paint, there’s like an 80 percent chance that it’s going in or he’ll make the right play. I feel very comfortable and confident that when I play with him he’s going to make the right decisions.”

Among fives logging fewer than 30 minutes per game, only Joel Embiid (54.2) is averaging more passes than Indiana’s reserve center (46.8). Not only has Sabonis contributed to making those dribble hand-off sets with Victor Oladipo nightmarish, he’s assisted on more threes (25) than everyone on the roster not named Darren Collison (34).

By comparison, Sabonis finds space whereas Turner creates it.

That much was evident two nights later against the Miami Heat, when the 21-year-old who possesses the silkier jump shot looked every bit the part of a modern stretch-five, draining a spot-up three on one end before rejecting James Johnson’s driving dunk on the other.

Finishing a stellar 11-of-14 from the field, his performance highlighted why his starting spot shouldn’t have been up for debate. Not only because his maturation into a could-be unicorn should be foremost among the team’s priorities, or because he successfully pulled Hassan Whiteside away from the rim and stopped missing shots he usually makes. But because he appeared sure of himself for the first time since the opener as a result of him purposefully being fed the ball where he’s most comfortable.

“Confidence,” Turner candidly told Fox Sports Indiana’s Jeremiah Johnson when asked what worked for him against the Heat, after sitting out the final frame of Indiana’s 22-point comeback against the Pistons. “That’s something I’ve been lacking the last couple of games.”

All of which continues to suggest that Sabonis —- though he displays more polish as a screener and eagerly outworks opponents for rebounds —- will have to eventually find a way to thrive playing alongside Turner.

Or, be stuck playing behind him.

Fortunately, the two bookends of the current win streak shed further light on how the two parts operate as a whole.

Against the Memphis Grizzlies, in particular, the duo tallied a season-high nine minutes and got outscored by 17.7 points per 100 possessions with offense being as much of an issue as defense.

Rather than being creative, the Turner-Sabonis lineups tend to devolve into post-ups for the latter with the former standing obstructively in the paint.

In this scenario, the floor would be better balanced with Lance Stephenson relocating to the corner and Turner occupying the space at the top of the key.

Here, Bojan Bogdanovic is forced into an awkward driving floater after coming off the high ball screen set by Sabonis because Turner just sort of hung out on the opposing low block when the ball was in play.

Until Turner’s understanding of floor spacing catches up to that of Sabonis, the more dynamic solution would be to simultaneously involve both bigs in the action.

Take this nifty possession from the second quarter when Turner was on the bench, for instance. Thaddeus Young and Sabonis begin by setting double-high ball screens for Darren Collison.

Then, with Sabonis rolling hard toward the rim and Young drifting behind the three-point line, Marc Gasol is forced to slide over and slow Collison.

With plenty of options, the result is a wide open corner three.

Unfortunately, the pass is off target, so Stephenson has to attack the closeout.

However, the premise still stands: Just because the pair of 21-year-old’s ideally play the same position doesn’t mean they have to occupy the same space.

Turner, 6-foot-11, is most lethal draining shots out of the pick-and-pop, Sabonis has the highest conversion rate (59.4%) and is drawing free throws more frequently (14.1%) than any player averaging at least four possessions as the roll-man per contest, and Bojan Bogdanovic, who is shooting a blistering 57 percent on corner threes, is usually on the floor alongside the two towers.

Run this set with them, please.

They haven’t, at least not since it’s appearance against the Grizzlies.

That’s a misstep, because they are going to struggle to defend in space against smaller spread lineups.

Especially on possessions where Turner is expected to force the side pick-and-roll action to the baseline and recover to the three-point line, rather than staying at home in the paint.

Overall, Indiana allows 29.8 three-point attempts per 100 possessions, which ranks 21st in the league, but when Sabonis and Turner are on the floor as a tandem that number balloons to an unwieldy 37.4.

Over a larger sample size, incorporating more imaginative sets is going to be an easier fix than expecting one or the other of them to become a step quicker defending out on the perimeter where porous containment has already been a prevalent issue.

Tellingly, the Pacers are still allowing opponents to score more points in the paint per 100 possessions than every team other than Orlando, which has likely roped Turner into leading the league in field goals defended at the rim per game. Outside of Sabonis appearing more physically ready to defend the low post and Turner having the clear edge in blocked shots, this provides more clues as to why neither of them has been definitively more productive as a defensive presence this season.

*per 100 possessions

Still, the Pacers have gone 4-0 while experimenting with how to best optimize and accommodate two talented bigs under the age of 22. It’s a good problem, as long as they’re innovative and both players continue to perceive it as such.

“I didn’t take it personally,” Turner told Johnson of not being on the floor in the critical moments against Detroit. “That group that was out there had it rolling, had it working. You don’t want to mess with that chemistry. Obviously, I was a little frustrated, but that can’t have any effect on the team.”

Neither should it be allowed to impact their individual growth or involvement, whether together or apart.