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How Nate Bjorkgren is deploying Domantas Sabonis like Pascal Siakam

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And what switching roles with Malcolm Brogdon means for the continued evolution of the Indiana Raptors.

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With just over six minutes to play in the third quarter of Indiana’s preseason finale against the Philadelphia 76ers, Domantas Sabonis did the opposite of what has come to be expected from him. Typically seen in his natural habitat at the center of the wagon wheel, operating out of the elbows as a hub for his teammates to drive, fade, feign, cut, and shoot, the 6-foot-11 big man suddenly migrated into being one of the whirling spokes, putting pressure on the basket after receiving the same type of pitch from Malcolm Brogdon that he would normally throw.

This past season, per Synergy, Sabonis linked up for plenty of dribble hand-offs as the distributor but only twice as the ball-handler, at least as it pertains to him finishing those possessions with points, free throws, or turnovers. On Friday, when accounting for any trip in which Sabonis put the ball on the floor off of a quick flip or pitch, including those flowing into other forms of offense, the one-time All-Star completed the night with four such possessions in just over 25 minutes of action — a solid indicator that the attempts to occasionally involve him as the ball-handler in the half-court are intentional rather than some random, preseason aberration.

Plus, not unlike a lot of the sets and concepts the Pacers ran during exhibition play, this inverse quick-hitter has a lineage which can be directly traced back to Nate Bjorkgren’s old stomping grounds with the Raptors. Look at this compilation, for example, and you’ll see Pascal Siakam being deployed in the exact same manner, steamrolling to the rim with his strong hand by virtue of a guard pitching him, a trailing big, the ball at the top of the key.

Interestingly enough, although the Turner-Sabonis pairing drew loose, and admittedly somewhat imperfect, comparisons to Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka in the wake of Bjorkgren’s hiring; in reality, Sabonis may actually have more to gain from using Siakam as his muse, at least in this one respect.

After all, as Bjorkgren noted post-practice on Thursday, the Pacers are still “building their offense” and putting in “more and more every day” after focusing on the defensive end of the floor for most of the start of training camp. In that regard, the aforementioned delay action notably wasn’t something the Pacers ran during the first two preseason games in Cleveland, nor will it likely look exactly like this in execution as the season progresses.

To that point, with the Raptors as our guide, there are layers the Pacers can add to that set to stretch the defense independent of whether Sabonis, who shot 1-of-8 from three during preseason, manages to develop deeper range as a shooter. For one, with the rim protector forced to defend on ball, there’s no rim protector as a second line of defense. Consequently, if the defense collapses, the potential is there for a higher percentage shooter to be open in the corner, or for Sabonis to tap into his wavelength with Doug McDermott and find cutters scurrying to the basket.

To be fair, Siakam is attacking as the four, here, with Rudy Gobert defending Ibaka away from the ball; however, given how much of a load Sabonis is to deal with in the post and the fact that Turner was most often guarded by Bojan Bogdanovic in games against the Jazz last season, it seems unlikely that those pairings would be in play against the Pacers.

Furthermore, even against a four-man instead of a center, the utility of using Siakam as the ball-handler is clear, especially when the added threat of a screen is present. In this possession against the Lakers, for instance, Anthony Davis has to stay higher up the floor to account for the boomerang pass from Siakam to Matt Thomas and back again. With Marc Gasol positioned at the wing, as would be the case in this scenario with either Turner or T.J. Warren, Siakam gets Davis moving one way and then flips his false assumption of a pick against him and immediately jets north-south to the rim.

Granted, Sabonis doesn’t have near that type of speed to appear as though he’s been shot out of a cannon, but look at who else is open. Even if Troy Daniels rotates over and beats him to his spot, the passing angle is still going to be there for crashers under the basket.

Not to mention the possibility of an added back-screen. Imagine for a moment that Lowry pitched the ball to Siakam, here, and make note of what happens next.

See how Lowry wheels around and ambushes Davis from behind, shoehorning his ridiculously long-limbed frame into fighting over as the on-ball defender? Not only is that forcing a shot-blocker outside the paint, it’s actively occupying (and pinning) Davis within the action without running that action at him or allowing him to roam free away from the ball — as was so often the case for the Pacers against Bam Adebayo in the playoffs.

All of which is to say that, after struggling to rebound and maintain stamina in each of three preseason games while playing a high pressure style of defense that led to manufacturing points off turnovers in bulk but also increased fouling and excess scrambling, at least it’s evident that the Pacers are workshopping new and inventive ways to make their opponents uncomfortable, even as they, themselves, work toward becoming comfortable in a new system.