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Player Review: Rakeem Christmas is tough to figure

It’s unclear what role the mixed bag 25-year-old can consistently play for the Pacers outside of emergency depth.

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NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly it is that Rakeem Christmas is or should be for the Indiana Pacers. He runs the floor hard and isn’t afraid to scrap on the offensive glass (grabbing the second-highest percentage of Indiana’s misses), but generally speaking he’s still a non-shooting, small-ball center in a 6-foot-9 power forward’s body.

How did Rakeem Christmas impress?

When Al Jefferson was sidelined with dental pain, the Pacers played 3.57 possessions faster when Rakeem Christmas was on the floor as opposed to off. In that regard, replacing Big Al’s aging with the 25-year-old’s spryness was a sight for sore eyes.

“We’ve been thinking about him and tonight provided an opportunity for him to play with Al being out,” Nate McMillan told the Indy Star’s Nate Taylor following the sophomore’s first game of real consequence against the Memphis Grizzlies. “We talked to Rakeem and told him to be ready. He’s been doing a good job in practice of playing that toss game as we call it of rolling to the basket, defending the basket, rebounding the ball. I thought he came out and did a solid job.”

By comparison, the inexperienced sophomore is also a more serviceable roll man than the anachronistic center because his explosive first-step allows him to crash hard toward the rim.

At issue, though, is that he did not finish particularly well in the restricted area (48.5%), especially not against more imposing big men. It also didn’t exactly help that he was too often tethered to Lavoy Allen, which only served to create more of the same spacing issues since both players combined to shoot 32.3 percent (21-of-65) from mid-range.

According to the NBA’s lineup data, the Pacers got outscored by 14.2 points per 100 possessions in the 84 minutes that Christmas and Allen were on the floor together.

How did Rakeem Christmas disappoint?

Christmas showed promising flashes of being able to use verticality to compensate for his lack of size (when he wasn’t racking up ticky-tack fouls), but the team’s defense was actually better with him off the floor than on.

Despite his high-motor and lateral quickness, the 6-foot-9 rim protector’s ability to slow ball-handlers out of the pick-and-roll was spotty. Take this possession against Miami’s Josh Richardson, for instance. Instead of taking one step to the right to cut him off, Christmas stayed parallel to him all the way to the rim and surrendered a wide open reverse layup.

What’s next?

If he was better able to full-out switch on the perimeter, then using his speed to sort of reverse space the floor in ultra-small lineups would be an interesting wrinkle for the Pacers when Kevin Seraphin’s physique prevents him from recovering to stretch-shooting fives behind the three-point line. But, until that particular aspect of his game along with his propensity to foul improves, he’s tough to figure.

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