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What to watch for when the Pacers lean on youth in Orlando

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Given the potential for deeper rotations during the “seeding games,” let’s get out the growth charts for Indiana’s young players before heading to Orlando.

Original images via Getty.

Normally waist deep in free agency while simultaneously gearing up for all-day basketball in Las Vegas, the first week of July customarily marks the release of my (somewhat anticipated?) annual summer league primer — otherwise known as a meaningful guide to meaningless basketball. This year, however, with COVID-19 calling the shots, the league is obviously foregoing the exhibition tournament designed for rookies, sophomores, and G League players in favor of restarting the season in Orlando. Even so, given that the Pacers likely won’t be in any rush to push their typically 9-man rotation to the max during the seeding games, there’s a reasonable chance that some of the team’s still-developing talent may yet get a chance to show what they can do in spots with extra run.

Therefore, keeping in mind that there’s really no telling what to expect from the league’s grand experiment after such a long layover, here’s one thing to watch for each of Indiana’s first- and second-year players.

Goga Bitadze: Screening

Ample time and attention has already been paid to Bitadze’s drop coverage as well as the possibility of implementing pre-switching as a means to mask some of his defensive flaws, so for the sake of change, let’s switch gears and set our sights on gauging his progress as a screener. In contrast to his six appearances in the G League, in which the 20-year-old rookie averaged 17 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and three blocks, Bitadze has oftentimes looked as though he simultaneously needs to calm down and be more aggressive during his sporadic playing time with the Pacers.

Way back in January, for instance, long before the coronavirus shutdown the league, the Georgian big man’s habit of getting antsy and setting non-intentional ghost screens was on full display against Minnesota. To be fair, this is technically a hand-off, but notice how Bitadze starts to dive before making contact on the screen and then proceeds to roll directly into the path where Malcolm Brogdon is snaking.

Kudos to Brogdon for draining the shot in spite of heavy traffic; ideally, however, he shouldn’t have to play bumper cars with his own teammate while attempting to downshift across the lane with his defender on his back.

Unfortunately, some of these minor hiccups have also cropped up on occasion with Bitadze’s off-ball screens, too. Running a stagger for T.J. Warren? Great idea. There’s just a few problems: For one, Goga needs to set his screen further away from Justin so that the two screens actually function as two screens instead of one.

Also, because of the lack of distance between the consecutive pindowns, Warren has no room to curl cut to the rim and act as a trigger for Holiday to flip around and fly off the second screen as is normally the case.

Rather, on top of the fact that more of a screen was arguably set on Warren than the trailing defender, Bitadze also started to crash to the high-paint when he should’ve stayed spaced, which ultimately contributed to the need for an offensive reset.

Overall, these mistakes are subtle — especially when considering that Bitadze is only 20 years old and has hardly accumulated enough playing experience with Brogdon and Warren to know that the former prefers to veer from left-to-right or that the latter has a tendency to miss open passing targets unless said passing targets are actively making themselves open. Still, if and when his number gets called in Orlando, watch to see if the rookie center manages to channel the G League version of himself while setting and holding more solid screens; or if, at times, it seems as though the game is happening to him rather than with him.

Alize Johnson: Footwork

To be frank, it didn’t exactly read as a positive sign for Johnson’s long-term staying power with the team when he was assigned to Fort Wayne on the same night when the Pacers were missing Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Doug McDermott, and JaKarr Sampson in Chicago. Sure, the Mad Ants were coming off three-straight losses amid a late-season playoff push, but the timing of the assignment nevertheless seemed to leave an aftertaste of “if not now, when” — especially when Brian Bowen II, one of Indiana’s two-way players, was recalled and announced as a starter while Johnson was en route to Fort Wayne.

In any case, though Alize continues to rack up gaudy numbers with the Mad Ants, averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds, and nearly five assists in 19 games played, he still needs to work on his finishing. Here, for instance, once the rebounding machine is unable to enter the ball to Goga on the block, notice how he loses the hip-to-shoulder war on the drive, resulting in a long, running floater.

In order to better position himself for an on-target layup, Alize either needs to take an extra dribble into his defender’s chest so that he can get to the front of the basket, or he needs to catch his defender with a euro-step so he can get to the other side of the rim.

Either way, though he typically spends most of his time with the Pacers camped out in the dunker’s spot, the above-shown cross-screen action is actually a set Indiana runs for Domantas Sabonis, which means Alize needs to be prepared to assert himself within the bounds of the offense when given the opportunity. Excluding putbacks, the Missouri State product converted less than 50 percent of his shots specifically classified as “layup shots” with the Mad Ants — a slight downgrade from his rookie season (52 percent).

Brian Bowen II: Staying spaced

Offensively, though he only shot 33 percent from three on 4.6 attempts per game with the Mad Ants, Bowen tracks mainly as a spot-up option with the Pacers, which means he needs to know where to find his shots.

When Aaron Holiday is leading the break, for example, the 6-foot-7 wing should be spraying out to the 3-point line and getting himself ready to shoot instead of counting on Myles Turner to fill-in at the last second once the ball is already in the air.

Likewise, here, rather than cutting into an area where there is already multiple guys and Turner is actively attempting to face-up, why not just stay glued to the 3-point line?

As a potential fifth-option, Bowen shouldn’t reasonably be expected to do any heavy-lifting, but conditioning himself to stay better spaced while sliding up and down the 3-point line would certainly help to lighten the loads of those around him.

Aaron Holiday: Pick-and-roll cadence

Aaron Holiday can at times be his own worst enemy. With high highs and low lows, the shoot-first guard’s developmental roller-coaster went from trending generally upwards in December, when he was keeping his eyes up and showing flashes of improved feel, to hitting a few unexpected bumps in the run-up to the league’s shutdown.

Though capable of making big, late-game plays, the younger Holiday brother showed his age and relative inexperience down the stretch against the Hawks with Malcolm Brogdon out of the lineup and T.J McConnell back in the locker-room, as he struggled to strike a balance between scoring and playmaking. Finishing the fourth quarter with three turnovers on 0-of-8 shooting in the role of lead guard, moments were aplenty when the 23-year-old sophomore’s reads were reminiscent of a boat actively paddling against the current.

Instead of playing two-man game with Sabonis, for instance, Aaron opted to go away from the pick, only to drive into a mess of a traffic and be left with no other option than to set up the lefty big man for an errant, kick-out three.

Moreover, rather than squeezing the ball through the open window in Alex Len’s drop coverage, he kept his head down and penetrated too deep into the soft spot of the defense before eventually misfiring on a contested floater.

It’s in these instances, when he isn’t slotted at the two and therefore more constrained in his decision-making, that Aaron needs to demonstrate his ability to be more resourceful with the ball in his hands, especially when the match-up dictates that a choice be made between he and McConnell.

Speaking of which...

Edmond Sumner: The Speed-and-D Equation

Alright, so this is actually Edmond Sumner’s third season, but the extent to which he’s been injured over the course of his short career oftentimes makes it feel like he’s just getting started. Plus, there’s one play in particular of his from this season that justifies a closer look:

It was Edmond Sumner at his most Edmond Sumner. Tasked with chasing around Miami’s Tyler Herro, the long-limbed slasher used every inch of his sprawling wingspan to execute a textbook closeout before squaring up his adversary in isolation and eventually blocking his shot. The cherry on top? He turned the block into points at the other end.

Granted, in knocking down only 26 percent of his shots from deep, Sumner hasn’t exactly shown demonstrable signs of improvement as a three-point shooter this season. However, as the above possession goes to show, his combination of menacing perimeter defense and electrifying speed could very well prove useful in a potential first-round series with the Heat. As a pairing, T.J. McConnell and Aaron Holiday don’t quite have the size to stick with Herro’s 6-foot-5 frame; and if the Pacers stagger Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo (assuming he plays) for defensive purposes, then it will be tougher to maximize the number of minutes they play together.

Sumner’s length offers a natural solution to both problems, except for one little snag: For whatever reason, despite the fact that Indiana has struggled against zone this season, the Heat have yet to play a single possession of 2-3 against the Pacers. That said, with their wings standing at an angle and purposefully influencing the ball toward the middle of the floor and into help coverage, Miami’s scheme (should they go to it) would instantly put pressure on a cramped McConnell-Sumner back-court to push the pace off every stop.

Otherwise, against a team that is largely built to sink or swim from three, things could get dicey. Keep an eye on this math in the seeding games.