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Sixth Annual Pacers Summer League Primer

The meaningful guide to meaningless basketball

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2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Atlanta Hawks v Indiana Pacers Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

When are the games?

The offseason is back on schedule! After a later than usual start last season, Indiana’s Summer League squad is back in full-swing at camp this week before opening it’s four-game preliminary slate on Friday, July 8 against the Charlotte Hornets. All games will be available for streaming via the ESPN app.

The rest of the schedule is as follows

Who’s playing?

With one knocking down multiple buzzer beaters and the other tying the Summer League record for blocks in a game (7), Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson are expected to participate in at least part of Summer League, which should offer a hint as to how the former might mesh with Bennedict Mathurin in potential three-guard lineups next season. Aside from the headliners, Duane Washington Jr. and Terry Taylor will also be making a repeat appearance after being promoted from two-way deals to standard contracts.

As for the other rookies, Andrew Nembhard projects to get plenty of run as primary ball-handler with Nate Hinton and Eli Brooks as the main back-ups. Meanwhile, the athleticism of units with Kendall Brown and Jackson on the floor together are begging for lob sets and have the potential to serve as a litmus test for how frequently the Pacers will play in transition next season. Nembhard plays at a controlled, methodical pace, but this team has shooting and hops, while also looking primed for plenty of 5-out alignments, given the presence of only Jackson, Taylor and Simi Shittu as predominantly rim-rolling bigs.

What’s worth keeping an eye out for?

Last summer, exhibition play provided an early peek at how Rick Carlisle planned to put his stamp on the Pacers, with several base sets, actions, and principles crossing over between both teams, while also highlighting what skill-sets he values. In that way, although Summer League isn’t typically a showcase for defense, perhaps what happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas as it pertains to clarifying the uncertain direction on that end of the floor.

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 improvement area to watch for each of Indiana’s rookies from this season and last.

Terry Taylor — Bully drives

As a 6-foot-5 roll-man and putback machine, Terry Taylor typically makes up for being a limited perimeter threat by slipping out of picks against switches, screening his own man versus drop coverage, and mashing players of all sizes on the glass. When he plays outside of the action, however, he doesn’t always bring the same level of ferocity.

Just look at this possession against the Boston Celtics. After popping out to three to release the pressure on Tyrese Haliburton, notice how Taylor immediately puts the ball on the deck, flowing into an awkward big-to-big hand-off, without ever even looking at the rim.

Then, moments later, with Marcus Smart hounding Buddy Hield, he does a complete about-face from the basket, shirking the generous cushion of space ceded to him by Daniel Theis, in favor of throwing a grenade to Hield for a contested, late-clock three.

On the surface, the obvious choice there is to turn and shoot. After all, his shot isn’t completely broken; he just doesn’t often look or act the part of a shooter, so opponents don’t really bother him out there, with only five of his 38 attempts being contested.

As such, rather than attempting to stretch the floor with an uphill hand-off out of the corner when the defense is denying the catch, consider the potential change in impact if Taylor had instead taken the space first, twisting and twirling his way to the rack with a methodical back-down. For example, think back to when the Pacers nearly clawed back from a 31-point deficit against the Denver Nuggets. During the fourth quarter, Michael Malone shifted Aaron Gordon’s length onto Tyrese Haliburton, which left Monte Morris to defend Taylor.

Here was Taylor’s response, in what should be cued to the theme music from Jaws:

To be fair, that’s against a mismatch, whereas what happened in Boston would’ve required him to punch above his weight class, but isn’t that also sort of what his emergence toward the back end of last season was built on? Plus, in addition to eliminating the need for a dangerous post entry pass, notice how the other four defenders have to suddenly morph from defending help side on a perimeter drive to guarding with the ball behind them on the block. In that way, Taylor going at Theis (his new teammate!) wouldn’t so much be about overpowering his own match-up as forcing the other match-ups to split their vision.

Granted, this is less than ideal spacing, but imagine if Haliburton, Hield, and Brissett were all shifted one spot to the right, with Bitadze then setting a back screen for the corner man to cut to the opposite block. All of the sudden, Taylor goes from being ignored behind the arc to occupying his defender and potentially facilitating for an easy two under the basket, when Horford would likely have to choose between staying home and helping on the cut.

All of which is to say that, Summer League should provide a safe space for testing the full-breadth of what players can do. To that point, whether being more willing to let the ball fly or turning into a battering ram, Taylor has to do something in these situations to make himself a factor — especially in lineups with Isaiah Jackson when he’s more likely to be playing out on the perimeter. In theory, Taylor is also arguably the only player currently on next season’s roster with the combination of skills required to pull off the totality of this type of maneuver (sans, maybe, Theis), so why not supply him with the reps to find out how opponents will respond?

Duane Washington Jr. — switching

With the defense taking on more and more forms last season, the Pacers never established a consistent identify on that end of the floor, nor appeared comfortable in what coverages they were executing from night-to-night, as they routinely adapted to their competition while also attempting to accommodate whichever big was on the floor. And, here’s the thing: For a team that was basically remade at the trade deadline, likely with scant opportunity to restructure a scheme that increasingly moved toward switching; they very much looked like a team that was basically remade at the trade deadline, likely with scant opportunity to restructure a scheme that increasingly moved toward switching.

This, for example, with Duane Washington Jr. leaving Trae Young for Kevin Huerter before Haliburton is close enough to trade assignments, is a demonstration of how not to switch.

All too often, the discourse around switching gets reduced to whether guards can defend the post or a big can deter penetration, staying between the ball and the basket, after the switch, when just as crucial is the actual execution of the switch itself, which also includes screening combinations with liked-sized defenders.

If the ball-handler’s defender disconnects too early and and the screener’s defender isn’t at the point of the screen, it doesn’t really matter if the big (who, in this case, isn’t a big) can mirror the ball in a stance. Who needs to dribble when there’s this much room to stop and shoot during the switch?

Granted, these types of snafus weren’t exclusive only to Duane, but they were certainly prevalent with Duane.

Moving forward, if the Pacers intend on switching next season, look to see if he can be more water tight in handing shooters over from one defender to the next.

Kendall Brown — hesitancy and timing

When Baylor took down Kansas, 80-70, at the beginning of February, there was an interesting dynamic in the second half where Kendall Brown unlocked his athleticism in transition, dusting David McCormack with his leaping ability and speed in the open floor, but was also checked by the 6’10 big man when confined to the half-court.

For the season, Brown shot 26 percent (15-of-57) on half-court jump-shots, with teams being very aware that he shot 26 percent (15-of-57) on half-court jump-shots, as his defender would typically flock to the ball or stray into driving lanes when he wasn’t shooting.

In part, that’s because, in addition to the data points of his shooting accuracy and volume, he has a tendency to incentivize opponents to take extra steps away from him with his reticence. If he isn’t going to catch and immediately fire with McCormack sagging off him like this, then there’s every reason not only for McCormack to proceed with this approach but also not to worry about staying within arm’s reach of him when he doesn’t have the ball.

Much to his credit, Brown attempts to compensate for this in most cases with his activity as a cutter, but he can over do it, occasionally spoiling spacing by bringing more bodies into the lane or throwing off the ball-handler’s rhythm. For example, if he’s going to corner cut in conjunction with pick-and-roll penetration, he has to arrive at the basket before the roller gets there. Or, at least not be quite this indecisive.

Without proper timing and sureness, movement for movement’s sake isn’t always inherently better than just dotting the perimeter. When he isn’t running and jumping full-speed ahead in transition, he needs to operate with more conviction in the half-court, be it faking it until he makes it as a shooter or determining when (and when not) to fly around as an off-ball receiver.

Bennedict Mathurin — off-ball processing

For as intuitive as Mathurin can be in setting up his man, whether feigning, fading, or cutting, his feel away from the ball doesn’t always reach those same heights on the defensive end. At times, he uncorks his vertical pop as a weak-side rim protector.

But, he can also waver between extremes in his recognition of when to pounce while skulking in tall grass along the baseline. Standing upright and slow to react to the big rumbling down the lane, he either under-commits and surrenders layups.

Or, he overcommits where help isn’t needed and a good passer finds the shooter he abandoned for an open corner three.

This also shows up in scramble situations, where he can take a beat too long to defrost before finding his rotation.

During Summer League and over the course of next season, monitor which side of the ball is the more accurate indicator of his processing: Will some of his cutting, at least in the absence of certain pet plays, start to take on some of the characteristics of how he defends? Or, will he grow to defend with the perceptiveness of how he cuts, particularly when going off script?

Andrew Nembhard — Reaching for steals

With Chet Holmgren slinking around like a paper-thin sheet anchor, Gonzaga’s defense often managed to cover mistakes with deterrence.

Just take a look at this possession against Memphis, when after Nembhard struggles to wheel around the initial screen that never makes contact, he runs the seam after lunging from behind, leaving Drew Timmie to contain on the switch until Holmgren eventually scares the secondary ball-handler out of a potential floater.

Of course, it also helps that Memphis struggled as a team to sink all jump-shots off the dribble (33%), with Alex Lomax connecting on just 32 percent. As such, neither Holmgren nor Nembhard is compelled to help up here, therefore, allowing both of them to protect the rim from any sort of number’s advantage.

Separated out from those layers of context, however, there’s still the matter of Nembhard reaching for the steal, bringing to question how much more damaging that would be on a team without Holmgren or the same degree of connectedness as a unit, let alone against opposing pull-up threats. To be fair, there were possessions where his back-taps created events for Gonzaga in the form of live-ball steals.

Still, among those that ended up being net neutral, the onus for recovery was too often shifted onto Holmgren’s ability to stall playing cat-and-mouse with the ball.

Nembhard isn’t suddenly going to get quicker in the next week, but he can focus on strengthening his preparedness to defend on the catch without need to excuse his reach.

Isaiah Jackson — mismatches and screening technique

Completing more alley-oop dunk shots in slightly over 500 minutes played last season than the prior two Pacers teams (yes, teams!) combined, Isaiah Jackson has tremendous capability for finishing plays above the rim with his springy dexterity, but he needs to be fed to be most effective, with 75 percent of his made two-point shots being assisted.

On the one hand, given that Jackson shot 6-of-23 on half-court jump shots, the Pacers likely still plan on using him primarily as a rim-roller, where he can complement Tyrese’s feel for toggling between floaters, lobs, and skip passes. On the other hand, however, he’s still going to need to broaden his offensive repertoire — or, at least show better judgment — against teams that switch. For example, this can’t be a step-back, fadeaway two.

Nor should his pick-up point be this far outside the lane, resulting in a catch-and-shoot attempt from mid-range. That’s not his game. More pogo-stick than bowling ball, he doesn’t quite have the same indicators as Terry Taylor to potentially back his way to the cup from the perimeter, either —especially since only five percent of his shots last season came off two or more dribbles.

As a result, for the time being, the most compelling means for him to punish mismatches with his slender build might actually be doing more of what he already does, just with modified technique. For example, watch how screening James Harden’s lower body as the on-ball defender and then sealing on the high side after Harden switches allows Sabonis to stay below for an easy two before Kevin Durant can rotate over.

It’s a small thing and Jalen Smith still gets an adequate shot, but spot the difference that micro-skill makes, here, when Jackson doesn’t screen below and stay below of Rodney McGruder, which allows Braxton Key to scram out the mismatch.

Admittedly, none of this moves the needle as far as self-creation, but getting the hang of that tactic along with cutting back on some of the extra curriculars, including his tendency to stick out his elbows to make contact, will aid him in maintaining his presence as a lob threat against different type of coverages.

Chris Duarte — jump stop

Sidelined due to a toe injury, Chris Duarte was only able to appear in one additional game since areas of growth were last selected for the young-ish players on the roster back during mid-March, so the major focus for him remains the same as it was then.

For the season, Duarte only shared the floor with Haliburton for a total of 110 minutes, and it remains to be seen how lineup combinations will shake out now that Bennedict Mathurin has entered the chat, but the long-term idea of the latter setting up the former as the purer initiator, while also spacing for each other when their roles are reversed, remains compelling. After all, when not overextended as a standstill, spread pick-and-roll creator, Duarte can dribble, pass, and shoot; he just has a tendency to grapple with the nuances of when to drive, when to pass, and when to shoot.

To that point, perhaps there is some clarity to be found in the next step of his development with what type of steps he purposes to take. For example, in both of these plays he’s operating more naturally as a secondary ball-handler out of a wing hand-off. Here, though, notice the way in which he springs in front of Chris Paul, keeping his feet and giving himself more time, as well as options, to survey the floor before locating the opposite corner.

Now, watch what happens when, with his man still parallel to his hip, he attacks too deep and leaps into a crowd, struggling to adjust for the late kick-out.

Granted, the off-ball cutting that was present against Phoenix didn’t occur in Dallas, but for a player with a tendency to stare down his targets, Duarte can’t maintain as much control, nor create as many passing angles, from the air as the ground. Without posing the same threat as Haliburton from floater range or with eye manipulation, going with a jump stop more often has the potential to streamline some of his decision-making with stability.

What about the rest of the field?

  • Tevin Brown, the all-time leader in made threes at Murray State, helped the Racers to a 31-3 record last season, including an NCAA tournament win over San Francisco at a familiar location: Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
  • According to The Athletic, when Fanbo Zeng picked the G League Ignite over Gonzaga, the departure of assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who left to become the new head coach at Arizona, was a determining factor. Two of Indiana’s draft picks, Mathurin (Arizona) and Nembhard (Gonzaga), both played one season for Lloyd, who also recruited Domantas Sabonis. Prior to his pre-draft workout, it’s possible Zeng also caught the attention of Indiana’s decision-makers at CAA’s pro-day, earning himself an Exhibit-10 contract, when the front office was seen observing Jaden Ivey and A.J. Griffin.
  • Here’s a fun fact about Jermaine Samuels: If he wasn’t playing basketball, he told Baltimore Watchdog staff writer Lisa Irambona he would be doing something artistic. In addition to being a getaway from basketball, he also combines both his passions, including an impressive sketch of old friend and former Pacer, Paul George.
  • Lauded for his on-ball defensive acumen and overall knowledge of the game, Eli Brooks was nicknamed ‘The Professor’ while at Michigan. Perhaps he can teach the rest of the roster a crash course on screen navigation and getting into the ball without fouling while in Vegas?
  • Ontario product Simi Shittu signed a two-way deal with the New York Knicks toward the end of the 2020-21 season following a strong performance in the G League Bubble, where he averaged 14.5 points and 10.1 rebounds. He also joins Mathurin (Montreal), Brissett (Toronto), and Nembhard (Aurora) in boosting representation for Canada on the Pacers.
  • Much like his previous stint with the Summer Pacers, when he sustained a knee injury in the first game and never made it back on the floor, Bennie Boatwright’s G League season was also cut short this year, due to ongoing knee injury maintenance.
  • An acrobatic layup finish landed Central Michigan product David DiLeo a spot on the top-five plays list for the Basketball Champions League.
  • Immediately after signing a two-way contract with the Pacers, Nate Hinton was unable to play in the final two games of the season due to health and safety protocols. Earlier in the year, Indiana inked Hinton to a 10-day deal amid the team’s COVID outbreak in December, but he only played for a total of two minutes. Vegas should provide him with more opportunity to audition, especially since he already played for Rick Carlisle on two-way contract in Dallas.
  • Bennedict Mathurin won’t be the only Arizona product suiting up for the Summer Pacers. Gabe York, who also signed a two-way contract for the Pacers at the end of the season, will also be in action, after making his NBA debut and earning the game ball for scoring his first points against the Philadelphia 76ers in the penultimate game of the season.