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Fourth Annual Last-Minute Christmas Gifts, Frontcourt Edition

May their games be merry and bright!

Original image via Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth-straight holiday season, the film room along with the virtual shelves of several advanced stats sites have been scoured in search of the perfect present for each player on Indiana’s roster in hopes that the impact soon will be near.

Let’s tear open the wrapping paper.

Domantas Sabonis: Extra fouls

Sabonis is like the busy business Dad in every cheesy Christmas movie who can afford to give his kids anything except the one thing they really want which money just can’t buy:


The Lithuanian big man has the fifth-best field goal percentage in the NBA without playing much above the rim or being tasked with spreading the floor. He’s shown flashes of using his 6-foot-11, 240-pound frame to play like a guard as well as a big. And he’s been a smooth operator at the elbows, where he averages more points per game than everyone not named Serge Ibaka while acting like a connecting hub.

He’s too good not to be playing 25 minutes per game.

The only problem is there are a few hold-ups. For one, there’s the whole thing where he plays the same position as another talented 22-and-under center, and then there’s also the thing where the Pacers have a negative net rating in the 167 minutes that they’ve been on the floor together (-2.3), scoring well-below a point per position while avoiding a significant deficit by being propped up by the inner workings of the team’s stingy defense.

With there already being inherent obstacles to increasing the per 36-minute wunderkind’s playing time, ain’t nobody wanna see him fouling out in less than 25 minutes of action like he did against the Knicks when he racked up 30 points without a missed shot.

Alas, Sabonis has been whistled for 4.6 fouls per 36 minutes, one of the worst rates among the 139 players to have logged at least 700 minutes.

Dear Santa, please give the lefty big man doing big man things at an incredibly efficient rate a higher fouls per game limit.

Related: Since the man in the jolly red suit can fit down a chimney, maybe some of his Christmas magic could be used to provide the Turner-Sabonis pairing with the elbow room each player needs to be comfortable playing side-by-side, thereby putting a permanent end to possessions like this:

Ike Anigbogu: Something, anything to go right on offense

The Pacers aren’t going to judge Ike Anigbogu by how many points he scores, but the fact that the Mad Ants have been 5.8 points per 100 possessions worse in point differential when the bulky rim protector is on the floor versus when he’s off has likely raised a few eyebrows.

When Anigbogu is in the game, Fort Wayne scores 102.7 points per 100 possessions. Take him off the court, and SON OF A NUTCRACKER!!!...that number balloons to 117.7 points per 100 possessions.

Put simply, his defensive impact isn’t keeping pace with some of the active as well as passive harm he’s doing on the other end of the floor.

Despite the fact that he’s only attempted 18 percent of his shots from outside the paint, the 47th overall pick’s field goal percentage ranks dead last among G League centers, minimum 200 minutes played.

Of course, it doesn’t help that his hands have been shaky. With a penchant for fumbling pocket passes and getting stripped on face-ups, Anigbogu has a turnover rate of 16.5 percent, the worst mark on the team.

There are also too many occasions where he just flat-out gets in the way.

Take this possession against the Canton Charge, for instance. With Rob Gray snaking his dribble, Anigbogu needs to stay parallel to and behind the ball in order to give the rookie ball-handler room to drag the opposing big man to the opposite sideline and pry open the window for an easy pocket pass or open two.

Instead, Fort Wayne’s man in the middle rolls directly in front of the ball and bumps Gray off his path, leading to an offensive reset.

Anigbogu has the facility to build his game around hard screens, rebounds, and blocks, but he can’t stand out for the wrong reasons.

Kyle O’Quinn: An endless loop of backdoor cuts

Every time Kyle O’Quinn has the ball at the elbow or above the break and nobody cuts to the basket with the shot clock expiring...well... let’s just say an angel definitely does not get its wings.

In the role of third-string center, the bearded big man has watched more games than he’s played while posting career lows in points, rebounds, and minutes. And yet, he’s stayed ready and been a good sport about what he signed on for — even to the point of providing hilarious help defense from the bench.

So, yes, seeing him sling passes to slashing wings in spot minutes is this season’s version of Al Jefferson putting young pups in the spin cycle and dagnabbit if any of those opportunities fall by the wayside.

Some traditions are worth keeping alive.

Myles Turner: An infinite supply of hair ties Screen Slips

Since daring to tie his hair back, Myles Turner has averaged 17.2 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks while shooting 51.9 percent from the floor in 29.5 minutes per game. He’s made more 3s in the last six games than he made through the first 26, and he’s staying actively involved, averaging 55.2 touches per game — a mark which would be a career-high if it held for the full season.

In short, Ponytail Myles is like having a December Birthday. Just because his superior alter ego was born around December 25th doesn’t mean he should get short-changed at Christmas, especially not when there’s still stuff he really needs.

Per Synergy, screen slips only account for 2.6 percent of the possessions he’s used as the roll-man.

When his man jumps out above the level of the screen to confront Oladipo dribbling off the pick, Turner has to become more adept at knowing when to dart to the rim to relieve congestion.

Otherwise, stuff like this happens:

In that regard, although there were some hiccups late when the Wizards went to this coverage over and over again when Turner was the screener, this was the moment when it became obvious that the 22-year-old shot blocker could never, ever let his hair down again.

Myles Turner’s shots as the popper have dropped at a decent clip ever since he got hot pulling Rudy Gobert from the rim, but that doesn’t mean he should bring the exact same side dish to every holiday gathering — even if it tastes really good.

Mix it up a little.

Alize Johnson: Single coverage

The Mad Ants love running them some horns, especially when Alize Johnson is with them on assignment. If Anigbogu is there too, Johnson drifts to the 3-point line and either floats up a shot or he creates off the dribble. When Omari Johnson starts at center in place of Ike, Alize goes to work on the block.

It’s basic, yet effective, offense, with the obvious catch being that the G League is smaller and heavy on switching.

Averaging 19.3 points and 13.5 rebounds (5.4 offensive) while shooting 54-42-83, Johnson has been a magnet for double and triple teams whenever he draws a mismatch diving to the low post out of Fort Wayne’s double-high ball screen action.

Against the Windy City Bulls, for example, notice how both high-side defenders in addition to the backside helper collapsed to the ball as soon as Johnson spun baseline in order to force the ball out of his hands and keep him off the offensive glass.

To his credit, Johnson has wowed with his ability to throw bullet passes to shooters out of traps, but there isn’t much opportunity to work on individual post moves when confronted by a herd of extra bodies.

That’s too bad, because when he does get a chance to go up against the type of coverage he would be more likely to see as a fifth option off the bench in the NBA, he has a tendency to rely a little too heavily on his Evan Turner-like turnaround, short corner jumper.

When it comes to refining his counters, being on the Nice List has sometimes been an obstacle to getting better.

Doug McDermott: Isolation containment

Opponents have shot 10-of-21 on isolation possessions when defended by McDermott this season.

Because the 26-year-old sharpshooter lacks the lateral foot speed to be a shutdown defender when possessions grind to a halt, he has to play a step back and rely on using his long arms as a deterrent to avoid getting beat off the dribble.

Sometimes that leads to his man rising up and missing a well-contested jumper.

On other occasions, especially when forced to defend against a targeted switch, speedy guards use the extra space like a playground and end up hopscotching their way to the rim or drawing contact.

Be that as it may, the overall nastiness of the team defense has made it less of a bummer whenever McDermott has pulled the White Elephant out of the Christmas grab bag.

T.J. Leaf: Growth

Leaf has yet to harness his skills as a stretch-four on either side of the ball this season. Granted, he’s been quick off his feet to the offensive glass and has shown improvement making reads for others out of the post, but he still has a tendency to get overwhelmed on defense by explosive first steps and his shot has regressed in comparison to last season.

Including Summer League action, the 21-year-old sophomore has shot 5-of-26 from three since adding 25 pounds of muscle to his spindly frame, compared to 18-of-42 as a rookie.

The Pacers already exercised his third-year option, but the possibility looms large for the back half of this season to be a Christmas Every Day-style replay of the back half of last season with him struggling to find a place in the rotation.

Thaddeus Young: Keep shootin dem open corner threes

Two seasons ago, Thaddeus Young was gifted a hand warmer. We’re assuming it was recalled and he sent in for a replacement that only just recently arrived.

Prior to the team’s seven-game win streak, the lefty power forward had missed 91 of his last 125 shots from outside 8 feet going back to last season’s All-Star break.

Since then? He’s suddenly hit seven threes (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus).

Opponents probably still aren’t going to lose sleep over taking extra steps off of him in the deep corner to crowd Oladipo, but Thad’s continued willingness to let those shots fly while hitting some in scattered bunches should at least keep free safety roaming at bay.

‘Tis better to be a bad shooter, than to be ignored as a non-shooter.

Bojan Bogdanovic: Ghost screening action with Victor Oladipo

Like the hordes of neighbors who show up in droves to see the hosts of The Great Christmas Light Fight flip the switch on elaborate lights displays, you don’t want to miss the rare occasions when the Pacers involve their two best perimeter threats in ghost screening action.

Feel free to ooo-and-ahh over this example with Aaron Holiday playing the role of Oladipo.

In this case, with Vince Carter wrongly assuming that he will need to slow down Holiday until Jeremy Lin can fight over the non-existent pick, Bogdanovic’s running slip ends up generating an open three.

If Oladipo is the ball-handler, the reputation of his speed dribbling off the faux pick will probably generate an even cleaner look for the Croatian sharpshooter.

There’s also another alternate reality where Bogdanovic fakes likes he’s going to set the ball screen and Carter hesitates, thereby netting Oladipo an opportunity to attack the paint with the 41-year-old stuck resembling a human glitch unable to make a split-second choice between following the path of his man and providing a second-line of defense.

That happened late in the game against the Cavs, Oladipo just missed.

Crazy light displays come but once a year, but the Pacers should be lighting up opponents with this action on the regular.