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Fourth Annual Pacers Summer League Primer

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The meaningful guide to meaningless basketball.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When are the games?

Indiana’s Summer League squad will be in full-swing at camp this week before opening it’s four-game preliminary slate on Saturday, July 6 against against the Memphis Grizzlies, sans No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant. All games will be available for streaming via the ESPN app. The rest of the schedule is as follows:

Who’s playing?

Goga Bitadze, that’s who! Well, maybe. Per The Athletic’s Scott Agness, Indiana’s 18th overall selection is working to obtain his visa and hasn’t joined the Pacers for camp yet.

That’s significant. Because for the second-consecutive year, Mad Ants head coach Steve Gansey will be heading up the Summer Pacers at Las Vegas, and also for a second-consecutive season, the roster has a very Fort Wayne-vibe. Unlike the Pacers, who are planning to play big next season, the Summer League roster is light on centers outside of Bitadze and is instead teaming with 6-foot-9-and-under workman forwards and wings, much like the 2018-19 Mad Ants. Last season, Fort Wayne jump-started a lot of their plays in A-formation, so that could provide an interesting sneak peak into Goga’s maneuverability in a double-big, roll-and-replace offense even though he won’t be sharing the court with another 7-footer, if he’s available.

Alize Johnson, for instance, floated back and forth between popping and diving to the block depending upon whether he was out on the floor with Ike Anigbogu (a traditional rim protector) or Omari Johnson (a stretch-five). Jakeenan Gant could also see some minutes at center.

What’s worth keeping a lookout for?

Competing on rosters supplemented with mercenaries and fraught with unfamiliarity in an environment that has a tendency to breed bucket-getting, look for trees (yes, trees — as in, individual minutiae), rather than forests with regard to Indiana’s returning players.

Edmond Sumner: On the season, Sumner turned the ball over 3.2 times per game with the Mad Ants. That’s a lot, considering he only averaged 4.1 assists. The bulk of his sloppiness didn’t tend to stem from being out of control and running out of ideas as much as it was a product of struggling to make accurate passes for others when he drew multiple defenders to the ball as well as failing to protect and control his dribble, like so:

Oftentimes dribbling high and out in front of himself, Indiana’s dynamic slasher needs to tighten up his handle and work on keeping his body and the ball low to the floor while making dribble escape moves so it isn’t so easy for opponents to reach at him and come away with possession.

Granted, Sumner may not be expected to bring the ball up the floor and initiate offense much next season as a bubble option at back-up two, but he needs to be ready to take care of the ball and make cleaner off-the-dribble moves at either guard position when pressed into action.

For More: Edmond Sumner: And..Breathe; On Edmond Sumner, the Pacers’ best-kept secret

Aaron Holiday: In the wake of Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury, Indiana’s score-first rookie at times struggled with being assertive versus creating for others. However, on this possession from the team’s blowout win over the Lakers, rather than attempting a challenged runner against a collapsed defense, the score-first guard tempered his quick trigger finger and dished the ball to Cory Joseph for a wide open three:

It was a welcome sign of growth in terms of his decision-making, and would do well to carry-over to summer league and into next season, especially since the play was borne of him making a post-entry pass, relocating, attacking, and then making a read. That’s a combination of skills that could come in handy on a team littered with bigs.

The same goes for mastering that one-handed, off-the-dribble lob he whipped out toward the end of last season (particularly when piloting the pick-and-roll in semi-transition with Bitadze running the floor and slipping to the rim). With that said, improving his playmaking at the NBA-level is going to be a process and shouldn’t reasonably be expected to happen over the course of a week’s worth of exhibition games. Still, watch to see if Holiday takes what the defense gives him, or forces what he hopes the defense won’t be able to withstand.

For More: Aaron Holiday: Pioneer

Goga Bitadze: Every NBA mic’d up huddle should be like an ABA Liga mic’d up huddle. Unedited for pithy soundbites, these delights are chock-full of stratagem and sprinkled with a dusting of occasionally crass marching orders that would make even Stan Van Gundy’s “form a f***ing wall” blush.

Take a moment to listen-in on this gem:

In case you missed it (or, couldn’t turn up your volume), that’s KK Mornar’s head coach giving his instructions for how to attack Mega Bemax’s switch-everything scheme: “Listen, if they break our offense,” he says. “We play ball-screen with Bitadze! With Bitadze! With the big-man! With (No.) 11! And attack. High-side, not outside screens — that get’s us more space.”

And, so they did. Over, and over, and over again, Mornar’s guards targeted Goga’s lateral movement in the pick-and-roll off of a switch.

Sometimes, he held up. Like, when he overplayed the ball-handler’s strong-hand and forced him to the sideline and then into rotation instead of surrendering a step-back three. Or, when he used his length to contest the shot and avoided making contact. Or, how about the last one on the reel when he stayed (admirably) square and used his quick hands like a scythe to swipe the ball free on the drive? Not bad.

Other times, he just flat-out got beat, underscoring — in the equivalent of all caps (BITADZE! THE BIG MAN!! NO. 11!!!) — why it was that he got called out in the opposing team’s huddle in the first place:

The Pacers rarely switch, but their bigs can still sometimes be left vulnerable to getting wrong-footed in space and/or temporarily stranded on an island against guards who snake their dribble or when the on-ball defender gets snagged by a drag screen.

With two shot-blockers on the roster, don’t be surprised if opposing guards look to pull him and Turner out into deep waters or side-to-side. Should he get matched up against ones, twos, or threes on Saturday, zero-in on how Goga fares while also enjoying his timing and smarts when he releases on screens with Aaron Holiday.

For more: Pacers take Goga Bitadze with 18th overall pick

Alize Johnson: Speaking of trading defensive responsibilities, one of the most exciting aspects of Johnson’s game is his ability to switch onto opposing guards, but he needs to do so with more forethought for the mismatches he’s creating in his overaggressive wake. When Kyle O’Quinn was ejected with a flagrant-two foul in Indiana’s regular season finale against Atlanta, Johnson saw a few spot minutes at small-ball center and the team attempted to alter the game by forcing turnovers with speed. In an effort to prevent Trae Young from being able to rise above the pick for three, Johnson switched the 1-5 pick-and-roll; thereby leaving Edmond Sumner and Davon Reed to contend with Alex Len in the post.

After sending Len to the line on two out of three possessions, the Pacers had Johnson revert to drop coverage. Granted, lack of depth left the Pacers with scant other options in that particular contest, and Sumner has size for position at the point guard position, but that calculus shifts with Aaron Holiday on the floor. Just because Alize has a unique combination of speed, footwork, and conditioning to mirror guards step-for-step doesn’t mean the guard he’s playing with has the length and girth to root out opposing bigs.

Indiana’s rebound magnet played his guts out with the Mad Ants and showed improvement in his 3-point consistency. His next step will be to grow in his floor sense on defense as well as offense.

For More: Alize Johnson: Rough Around the Edges

What about the rest of the field?

Don’t forget about Indiana’s newest addition on two-way contract. Per the Indy Star, small forward Brian Bowen II is trying to “focus on basketball and leave his recruiting scandal in the past.” Meanwhile, Davon Reed’s two-way contract was a one-year deal, and he isn’t playing Summer League for the Pacers, so the team’s 17th roster spot looks very much up for grabs.

Links:

Shizz Alston Jr. talked to the Washington Post’s Candace Buckner about the challenges of being compared to his father on the court. Domantas Sabonis can relate.

A two-time Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year, Jakeenan Gant worked out for the Pacers earlier this month and parlayed that invitation into an Exhibit 10 contract, allowing him to receive a bonus of up to $50,000 if he is waived before the start of the season and elects to play for the Mad Ants. It can also be converted to a two-way contract by the first day of the regular season. Fort Wayne, here he comes (probably).

Markis McDuffie won a championship at the Portsmith Invitational (the top tournament for college seniors), and he received some valuable advice from fellow Wichita State alum Fred VanVleet, whose path to an NBA Championship took a winding path through the G League.

Travin Thibodeaux’s averages from last season don’t exactly jump off of the page (6.1 points, 5.6 rebounds), but he earned rave reviews for his screen-setting and dirty work with the Mad Ants.

After going undrafted in 2018, Oregon’s MiKyle McIntosh played for KBL’s Anyang KGC before finishing out the season in his native Canada with the Raptors 905, where he had arguably his best performance on the road against the Mad Ants, posting 15 points, 12 rebounds, two assists, and three steals on 60 percent shooting. Coincidence?

Injuries forced the Denver Nuggets to bleed through DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell’s 45 days of NBA eligibility last season. He ended up finishing out the year in the Israeli Premier League, where he shot 6-of-25 from three over eight games, a dip even from his career mark of 30 percent with Illinois State. Related: The Summer League Pacers look to be largely bereft of high-volume, 3-point marksmen. Keep an eye on Jaylen Johnson, though. He went from shooting 29.8 percent from distance on 2.8 attempts per game with the Windy City Bulls in 2017-18, to connecting on 38.6 percent of his long balls in 21 games with the Iowa Wolves.

If former walk-on Louisville guard Jay Henderson’s name looks familiar it might be because he had a cameo on Victor Oladipo’s YouTube series “The VO Show.” On Episode 2, the pair got up shots at Vic’s gym in Miami with trainer Bryce Stanhope and then kicked things up a notch when they opted to jet set to Indiana for a practice session with trainer Micah Lancster. James Henderson, who also makes regular appearances on the series, is Oladipo’s manager.

Cody Demps, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound forward turned point guard, played a variety of roles for the Stockton Kings last season, and came this close to becoming the first Sacramento State alumni to see action in an NBA game after signing a 10-day contract with the Sacramento Kings. Described as a quiet “glue guy” by Stockton’s head coach Ty Epps, the undrafted second-year player known for his solid, smart, and selfless play seems like a fit for Indiana’s 3T-culture.