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Fifth Annual Pacers Summer League Primer

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The meaningful guide to meaningless basketball.

Indiana Pacers v Washington Wizards - Play-In Tournament Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

When are the games?

The offseason is back on. After being forced out of action by the pandemic schedule last summer while the NBA was playing inside the bubble campus at Walt Disney World, Indiana’s Summer League squad is back in full-swing at camp this week before opening it’s four-game preliminary slate on Sunday, August 8 against the Washington Wizards. All games will be available for streaming via the ESPN app.

The rest of the schedule is as follows:

Who’s playing?

When last this guide was written, Goga Bitadze was held out of summer league action as a result of a visa issue, missing out on early developmental reps while also leaving a giant hole at the center position. Short on shooting and teaming with 6-foot-9 and under workmen, the 2019 Summer Pacers finished exhibition play 0-4, as Aaron Holiday too often put results over process, hunting for shots amid cramped spacing in the absence of a viable pick-and-roll partner.

Two years later, in the wake of what, at best, can be described as adverse conditions for growth, Bitadze will at long last be in uniform for the Pacers, along with a few other rim-rollers, including two-way player Amida Brimah and rookie Isaiah Jackson, who is expected to play but can’t be named on the roster until the trade that sent Aaron to Washington is made official. Meanwhile, given that the past iteration of the Summer League Pacers started exhibition play shooting 16-of-81 from three through the team’s first three games, Chris Duarte won’t have to clear a very high bar to impress in his rookie debut as both an on and off-ball sharpshooter, at least by comparison.

The same goes for Oshae Brissett, who after knocking down 41 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes as part of his late-season surge with the Pacers, is somewhat of a surprise inclusion, although his contract is non-guaranteed for next season.

What’s worth keeping an eye out for?

With Mike Weinar, who was offensive coordinator for Dallas this past season, taking over as coach, exhibition play has the potential to offer an early first peek at how Rick Carlisle intends to shape the Pacers. That said, competing on rosters supplemented with mercenaries and fraught with unfamiliarity in an environment that has a tendency to breed bucket-getting, Summer League is more about trees (gaining experience and working on individuals skills) than forests (team concepts). With that in mind, let’s pinpoint one area to watch for each of the players who project to be on the Pacers roster next season.

Goga Bitadze — Positioning

Words have already been written about the strides Goga made last season in his understanding of spacing and why he still needs to make improvements as a screener, so let’s pivot to the other end of the floor, where, for reasons both good and bad, it’s rare for him to go unnoticed. On the one hand, the Georgian big man blocked 3.8 shots per 36 minutes (good for fifth in the league), and at times, appeared surprisingly nimble stepping out above screens or in late-clock situations against switches. On the other hand, however, his desire to swat everything with home run plays resulted in a correspondingly high foul rate (six per 36 minutes), and his positioning, particularly in drop coverage, still wants for refinement.

Consider this possession against the Minnesota Timberwolves, for instance. To be fair, this is Karl Anthony-Towns, who shot 38 percent from deep last season on over six attempts per game, and it wasn’t always exactly clear how the Pacers intended to cover the pick-and-pop, but this is a drop; and yet, Goga doesn’t contain the layup — at all.

For that reason, while criticism of the defense being overly aggressive was warranted, it’s not as if the more conservative schemes, perhaps as a byproduct of trying everything and mastering nothing, were executed all that well by the end of season, either. To that point, maybe the plan was for the top tag defender on the two-man side to send help so Goga could stay home? In that case, though, Kelan Martin likely would’ve pounced on the drive to plug the gap instead of merely jabbing at the ball and releasing. That also wasn’t what they were doing at any other point in the game.

Bottom line: If the Pacers were going to drop when Towns was the screener, then Goga’s first priority has to be to contain the ball before retreating to his man. Granted, Summer League isn’t exactly a defensive showcase, and it remains to be seen what type of base scheme Rick Carlisle will deploy next season, but look to see if Bitadze demonstrates a firmer grasp on his responsibilities and where he should be positioned in these situations.

Cassius Stanley — Assertiveness

As opposed to Goga, who whether in making mistakes or earning stops almost always stands out, 2020 second-round pick Cassius Stanley has a tendency to fade into the background. Of course, some of that is a product of sparse playing time and mostly being relegated to the corner as a fifth option in the absence of lob plays. Still, even when considering his underdeveloped handle, there were moments inside the G League Bubble when, with increased opportunity, he was too deferential.

Here, for example, not only does he pass out of a shot lifting up from the corner, but he also avoids the pull-up two after getting the ball back and aborting his dribble.

Stanley didn’t shoot the ball well with the Mad Ants, averaging 12 points while converting 41 percent of his shots overall and 26 percent of his threes, but he can’t allow that to give way to spurts of passiveness, especially during exhibition play in Las Vegas. No longer dealing with the foot injury that held him out for a bit in the bubble, it would be better for the 21-year-old to miss some shots actively looking for his spots in the offense as opposed to merely blending-in as “there.”

Isaiah Jackson — Feel

What most often gets brought up with regard to Jackson is his athleticism and defensive-impact, which is understandable given that he averaged 4.5 blocks per 36 minutes at Kentucky, while also showing flashes of isolation defense against wings. And yet, during the team’s post-draft presser, Carlisle notably referenced the 19-year-old’s “feel” as something that stood out during the pre-draft process, revealing that figures from Kentucky told the Pacers they would “be surprised by this kid’s feel” and skill-level.

As a freshman, in recording 38 turnovers (many of which were of the moving pick and charge variety) to 18 assists, he didn’t have much opportunity to demonstrate those aspects of his game in an offense with limited spacing, but his sense for finding the open man, particularly out of the short-roll and short-corner, might have a chance to lend some slack to the invisible string tethering him to catching lobs in the dunker’s spot — at least when he manages to set fundamental screens.

Moving forward, if some of those reads show up at the next level, what will be fascinating is how he adapts to attacking or shooting the jump-shot when teams back off and his long, athletic first-step isn’t quite as useful in powering him to the rim.

Of course, those progressions won’t be applicable to summer league but are certainly something to monitor in the long-term for someone who tracks as a four and shot 7-of-21 on all field-goal attempts classified as jump-shots, per InStat.

Chris Duarte — Physical resistance

While discussing Chris Duarte’s readiness to be an NBA defender, Carlisle mentioned during the post-draft presser that, with all of the switching that is done in the NBA now, “with his size and combativeness on the floor ... he’ll be able to battle big guys on the inside when there are switches on rolls,” in addition to guarding at various positions on the perimeter.

That comment is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, the way it is phrased seems to suggest that chasing over and switching, as the Pacers did at times throughout last season, is at least being considered as an option moving forward. Tactics aside, however, the consensus among armchair analysts seems to be that Duarte, 6-foot-6, thrives more so as an off-ball defender, whether making use of his recovery skills or relying on instinct to know when to be aggressive, as opposed to defending up a position.

Here, for example, he puts up little physical resistance veering into various rollers, with the exception of an impressive recovery block.

Keep an eye on this while also watching how he fares rifling through his bag to rise up for shots against different types of coverages, including attacking hedges, switches, drop, and when opposing guards duck under (quick recommendation to opposing guards: don’t).

On an unrelated note, when he’s off-ball, where can we petition to have this chin set that Dallas ran for Dwight Powell implemented at Summer League? The people deserve to have Duarte lifting from the corner, creating a single high-side tag, as Jackson chases the cutter with a fake pindown to flow into a lob, amirite?

Too intricate, you say? The Pacers completed less than 10 lobs all of last season. Let us dream! And let Cassius be the initial threat slicing down the lane off the back-pick!

Oshae Brissett — Attacking closeouts

Brissett also needs to demonstrate more physical resistance against stronger frames (see: Bagley, Marvin’s going off for a season-high 31 points on May 5 against the Pacers), but the Canadian forward only attempted two mid-range shots and one unassisted three for the season. Overall, 60 percent of his field-goal attempts were either catch-and-shoot threes or off cuts, which speaks well of his shot-selection but also poses questions about what happens when he starts to face more aggressive closeouts. To that point, none of his threes were tightly contested last season, and his conversion rate dropped from 45 percent, when “wide open” (24-of-53) to 36 percent (9-of-25), when merely “open.”

If he continues to hit from distance as a more regular part of the rotation and eventually gets leveraged into putting the ball on the floor, he’s going to need to get better at turning the corner and adjusting his body in the air.

For the season, he went 4-of-19 (21 percent) on drives — a mark which was comparable to his 4-of-28 conversion and volume rates on driving layups in 12 games with the Mad Ants.

What about the rest of the field?

The nephew of five-time NBA Champion Derek Fisher, Duane Washington Jr. ageed to a two-way deal with the Pacers, after a great showing at the G League Elite camp and subsequent invite to the NBA Draft Combine. Washington’s crafty handle should provide an interesting foil against Stanley’s athleticism.

In somewhat confusing news: Hoops Hype reported that, in contrast to Cassius Stanley, the Pacers did not extend a qualifying offer to center Amida Brimah, who joined the team on two-way contract midway through last season to provide emergency depth at center. Shortly thereafter, however, the tweet breaking that news was deleted. This past April, it was reported that Brimah signed a two-year, two-way deal, which means he would have to be waived to open up a two-way spot for Stanley — assuming last season’s second-round pick, as a restricted free agent, signs the qualifying offer.

Bennie Boatwright, a 6-foot-10 forward who went undrafted in 2019 and couldn’t play as a rookie for the Memphis Hustle due to a knee injury, averaged over 18 points and shot 43 percent from three on almost seven attempts per game in his final season at USC.

Having represented Cleveland, Golden State, and Denver, Keifer Sykes is a Summer League regular. He spent most of this past season playing for South East Melbourne in the NBL after a one-month deal with Panathinaikos of the EuroLeague. Most recently, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay alum has been in action for Boeheim Army’s in The Basketball Tournament, advancing to the title game.

Terry Henderson, who spent last season in Poland for GTK Gliwice, also played in The Basketball Tournament, only for the Wolf Blood, featuring former NC State players.

Oh hey, another Terry. Terry Taylor, the two-time defending Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, led all of Division I in double-doubles and discussed the key to rebounding following his pre-draft workout with the Pacers: Go opposite and go inside of the shot, according to his coaches; but also have the heart to actually do it, even amid the trees, according to him. Perhaps he can pass this advice along to the Pacers while in training camp, since he signed an Exhibit-10 deal.

Former University of Tennessee guard Jordan Bone was drafted 57th overall in 2019 by the New Orleans Pelicans, who then traded him to Detroit. He has since played for the Pistons and Magic on two-way contracts, playing a total of 24 games at the NBA-level while averaging 2.8 points on 37 percent shooting.

Prior to playing for the G League’s Agua Caliente, Tyrone Wallace shot 20.3 percent from deep in 106 NBA games, between the Clippers and Hawks. Prior to the shutdown of the G League in March of 2020, he boosted his conversion rate to 44 percent in just four games with the team, but that number sunk back down to 28 percent in the bubble on 3.8 attempts per game. The former Cal standout, who was drafted by the Jazz with the final pick in 2016, knows improving his shooting will be key to returning to the NBA.

From blocking shots and taking charges to highlight dunks and rebounding, Devin Robinson did a little bit of everything for the Mad Ants in the bubble. It doesn’t all show up in the box score, but he changed some games with his energy. Most recently, the 26-year-old forward, who previously spent two seasons with the Washington Wizards on two-way contract, played for the Eberlein Drive in The Basketball Tournament.

BJ Johnson, who spent last season with the Long Island Nets, the G League franchise previously coached by Pacers assistant Ronald Nored, has ranked in the top-25 of G League scorers in each of the last two seasons, averaging 22.9 points in 2019-20 while shooting 42 percent from three. Overall, between the Hawks, Kings, and Magic, the 6-foot-7 forward has appeared in seven NBA games and 67 in the G League.