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Analyzing the Pacers who have shown the most growth

Diving deep into how various members of the team have grown their games since the start of what has become a surprising season.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

On Media Day, long before the Pacers were poised to match their Vegas win-total projection for the season with 39 games left to play, Rick Carlisle said the following when asked how he would define a successful season for the team this year:

“I would say, in general, that a lot of this is going to be the eye test. Over the course of the season, the people that follow this team and study this team see that from week-to-week and month-to-month that there are positive steps forward.”

To this point, at least prior to when Tyrese Haliburton sustained injuries to his elbow and knee that will sideline him for at least two weeks, the Pacers have managed to walk what most preseason predictions (including my own) pegged to be an invisible line, germinating buds of growth from various players on the roster while also mounting a surprise push for the playoffs. Granted, that line has been sturdier and more distinct for some on the roster to navigate than others. Whether due to foreseeable logjams at the center position or not taking consistent advantage of opportunities, Isaiah Jackson isn’t part of the regular rotation, though he has racked up plenty of athletic feats of late. Meanwhile, Christ Duarte finally broke out of his slump against the Grizzlies on Saturday, but has largely struggled to find his fit, as well as the bottom of net, while battling injuries. Still, for those who have shifted into new roles or are new to the league, there have been notable signs of development, including from some veterans as well as the rookies.

In that regard, coming from someone who tries to “follow this team and study this team,” here are some of the “positive steps forward” that have been taken by individual players, even as the Pacers have also climbed to unexpected heights in the standings.

Turn the job you have into the job you want

Last January, ahead of the trade deadline, when Myles Turner’s name was making the latest rounds in the rumor mill (per usual), it seemed as though there was a very definite emphasis to force-feed him the ball early in games. At the time, it was unclear whether the motivating factor for the intentional touches was to showcase him to interested teams or appease him in the wake of his “this ain’t P” tweet and “glorified role player” comment. Either way, it didn’t often feel warranted. Just look at this opening set from the final game he played before being ruled out indefinitely due to injury.

Notably, with Keifer Sykes squirting through elevator doors on the opposite side of the floor, Turner has plenty of elbow room to go to work in the post without having to tangle with or being marginalized by Domantas Sabonis. And yet, rather than carving himself space in front of the rim, he takes off way too early and gets blocked from behind.

With results like that, it was often difficult to avoid asking, “why is this a thing that is happening?” Well, guess what? It’s baa-ack! During the matinee game against the Clippers a few weeks ago, the Pacers opened the second half with a similar version of the same play, only with Nembhard exiting through the doors in the opposite direction to snap Turner into the post-up. And, here’s the thing: it’s a lot less scary now — in a good way.

Positioned on the left block as opposed to the right, notice how against a like-sized player in Ivica Zubac, he patiently faces up the opposition, holding the ball with a live dribble before using his shoulder to create a barrier between the ball and his defender. To be fair, this isn’t a regular fixture of the offense. Even at the five position, the Pacers generally don’t make a practice of setting up Turner to joust against opposing fives. Still, he’s shot 15-of-23 on hook shots so far this season, compared to 3-of-10 last season and the difference in both patience and force has been jarring at times while also applying to other areas of his game.

For example, this is what happened a few possessions later in that same quarter against the Suns when he flashed middle against a switch and had the rug pulled out from underneath him. Again, no one else is in the paint and no one is preventing him from being involved.

Now, jump back to the match-up against the Clippers and look at how he manages to be quick without hurrying, feeling the defense before rushing to make a decision so he can maintain his center of gravity while executing the spin to the rim.

No one is going to mistake him as a dominant back-to-the-basket threat, but that sort of stuff wasn’t happening last January or, really, any January of his career to this point. At least, not with regularity. Plus, his shoulder continues to make some surprise cameos, like when he turned to face up against Jarrett Allen in an attempt to beat him with speed and ended up dislodging the shot-blocking big man with strength.

Another area where his relationship with contact has started to evolve is as a screener. He can at times exist in a strange in between zone where he is neither hitting and holding on ball screens nor slipping. It’s almost like he is trying to confuse the defense as to his intentions by merely lurching up toward the ball and doing so waayyyy early — sometimes before the on-ball defender even arrives at the scene. It may seem galaxy-brained, but what are bigs who are playing at or above the level against Haliburton supposed to do in this situation when they get caught between Turner’s dive and stepping out to hedge?

Of course, this technique (if this is a technique?) doesn’t have quite the same effect in hand-off situations, where he can be jittery, jettisoning the ball and darting to the basket before the play develops. That said, even when he doesn’t make contact on the initial ball screen, he has started to become more physical in the trenches around the basket. If he gets fronted or doesn’t touch the ball, he’ll wall up the mismatch to create an open driving lane.

Likewise, he has begun to find his groove — or, rather, a groove — by rolling and sealing off his own man against drop coverage.

Overall, there is no doubt that Turner has benefited from Haliburton’s array of pass-fakes, shot-fakes, spin dribbles, and eye manipulation that routinely freeze defenders (who wouldn’t?). Moreover, with shooting all around him in four-guard lineups, he rarely has to fight off the hordes of bodies that so often swarmed Sabonis. If he continues to be effective against switches, there’s reason to think that opponents will eventually start to be more aggressive in testing the limits of his playmaking. Even so, there’s more to his improved play this season than his shift to playing the five. In similar scenarios, be it out of the same play-type or in the more deliberate manner with which he’s managed to calm down while also being more aggressive, he’s better now in ways that he also could’ve been better last season — at long last, redefining aspects of his job with his play rather than just his position.

Pushing people away

With his mix of both brains and brawn, the list of tiny things that Andrew Nembhard does well on defense continues to grow and, sometimes, coalesces within the same possession. Just look at everything he does, here, on this one play against the Portland Trail Blazers.

First of all, when Myles Turner yells “blue” as the coverage call for “ICE” or pushing the action to the sidelines against side pick-and-rolls, watch how quickly Nembhard flips his hips on command to negate the screen.

That fluidity, in partnership with Turner’s hand activity, is in part why he is able to defend above his weight-class on occasion against the likes of Julius Randle, forcing the bruising big man into a tough two while taking away his strong hand.

Back to Portland, though. After inducing the retreat toward half-court and continuing to apply pressure, now look at how he keeps his head on a swivel without surrendering a rejection, dipping his shoulder around the change in screening angle before running the seam in front of the screener with high hands to create the illusion of a guarded pass.

That effort to get back in the play and late-switch is a change from earlier in the season, when he was more apt to give in to his tendency to reach for steals after getting beat.

But wait, there’s more! He also released from his post around the basket to run out to the corner shooter and then doubled back to smash down on the box-out.

Taken altogether, Turner is obviously critical for undergirding the floor of the four-guard lineups. After all, there’s a reason why the Pacers went from trying to ICE Jalen Brunson hard to his right during the first half against the Knicks, when Turner was unavailable, to trapping ball-screens and applying extended pressure after halftime. That said, when things are clicking for those groups on the defensive end, Nembhard is generally playing a significant part in raising the ceiling. And that includes actions that don’t involve Turner.

In fact, he’s become somewhat of a ghostbuster. To switch or not to switch, that is the question when defending ghost screens. But, what if there is another way? Ghost screens, when the screener fakes the ball screen and sprints away into space, are pesky to defend due to the difficulty in determining when or if the screen is going to be set. If the coverage hesitates for even a beat, a player like Buddy Hield can shake loose and punish the opposition from deep in a hurry. Nembhard removes the mystery. In effect, when the screener gets close enough to ghost screen, he doesn’t leave anything up to interpretation. Instead, with a gentle shove, he insures that the screen is actually set, like so.

Although it may seem like just some insignificant little something, that push makes the action more fixed and easier for the on-ball defender to navigate with the switch.

Plus, when he precedes the tiny nudge by being physical with the screener on the approach, he saps some of the kinetic energy from the action along with the confusion.

In isolation, he’s experienced both sides of the spectrum, earning a game-winning stop against Tyler Herro and giving up a huge, late-game three to Trae Young. Even so, he’s been mostly ahead of schedule on that end of the floor, and when screen help comes, there’s ample evidence as to why he’s the ghostbuster you want to call.

An upswing in downhill dealings

Nembhard isn’t the only rookie who has improved since the start of the season. Bennedict Mathurin has too. Earlier this month, there was a lengthy piece published here at Indy Cornrows on how he puts in work before he puts the ball on the floor, highlighting some of the advances he’s made in determining whether to pass or shoot when the defense steps up. Go read it, please?

Cut to (initiate) the chase

Since much has already been written in this space about how Tyrese Haliburton has made the game easier for himself against switches by hunting the switch pocket with his extended range, let’s turn our attention to another hack he’s found.

There was a hint during the penultimate game of last season. While being defended by Joel Embiid, Haliburton faked his usual escape-dribble three to the right and passed to his nearest open teammate. With the shot-clocking winding down, the maneuver resulted in nothing more than Duane Washington Jr. mishandling a ticking time-bomb, but there was reason to think, “hey, he might have something here.”

After all, because Haliburton mimicked the movement pattern of his go-to shot, Embiid very noticeably jumped to invade his space. As a result, rather than getting bottled up by length, as so often happened last season, Halliburton was able to attack the switch with movement while gaining a number’s advantage. Or, at least, that’s what he would’ve done, if he had gotten the ball back.

On that note, try to imagine that same possession at a slightly different angle and without Oshae Brissett setting the flare screen. Oh hey, good news! You don’t have to. That actually happened against the Brooklyn Nets this season.

As was also the case with Embiid, when Haliburton leverages the threat of his shot, Claxton closes to his body, bringing to life with the give-and-go what previously was perhaps just a glimmer in the eye of that loss to Philadelphia. Moreover, even when the pass-back doesn’t result in a direct scoring opportunity for him, he kick-starts multiple rounds of drive-and-kick for the four-guard lineup, putting the opposing defense in the blender.

For that reason, although he has been a monster of late in late-game situations, what gets ignored about whether he makes or takes shots in isolation is everything that he does that prevents the Pacers from necessarily having to rely on isolations in the first place.

The straight and narrow

This was Aaron Nesmith’s first shot for the Pacers during preseason. Curling around a pair of off-ball screens, the design of the play was nothing fancy, but the direction of the action was notable. In Boston, over 70% of his usage coming off screens was derived with him going to his right, meaning the screens were set on the left side of the floor. On this possession, though, the opposite was true. The Pacers deliberately ran the play for him to catch the ball moving to his left.

And yet, although he was still able to use his momentum to propel himself into a push shot, he somewhat tellingly made the process of turning the corner more awkward by taking a dribble with his right as his inside hand. At the time, given what some of his left-handed dribbling looked like during Summer League, it seemed possible that the Pacers were deliberately feeding him off-ball reps to nudge him in the direction of working on his dexterity with his defender trailing. If so, those efforts have slowly started to bear fruit — particularly as it pertains to his willingness to drive closeouts with his off-hand.

Think back to Summer League. Admittedly, this spacing isn’t exactly ideal with Kendall Brown pitching him the ball and relocating, but Nesmith doesn’t even consider trying a quick-rip to attack baseline with his left, and his driving angle is so east-west that he steps on the free throw line as he is turning the corner, buying extra time for the help to rotate.

Since being inserted into the starting lineup at the four-spot, however, he’s started showing some flashes of handling at sharper angles, such as when he wrong-footed John Wall by putting the ball on the floor with... wait for it ... his left.

Oh, and remember when he detonated at the rim against Jarrett Allen? Before that happened, he shifted Evan Mobley so he could drive on a straight-line (again) with his left.

That’s more than just a jaw-dropping highlight; it’s progress. Meanwhile, his shot-selection has also started to show some signs of refinement. To be fair, Summer League has a tendency to breed bucket-getting, but part of the reason why Nesmith was struggling to finish in traffic was because he was trying to finish in traffic.

By comparison, while he certainly benefits from Turner diving in tandem with the ball, he’s playing with his eyes up, even as he attacks yet again with his left.

There are games where Nesmith doesn’t hit shots, and he’s mainly just being asked to dot the corners and fill gaps with the starters. But, his addition to that group has meant that he is more often being defended by bigger forwards, which at times allows him to be more explosive in spot-up situations, while also safe-guarding Turner from the cross-matching that was occurring with opposing centers sagging off from Jalen Smith. Moving forward, the Pacers probably still need to find a sturdier answer at that position to mitigate for what they are surrendering in size and oftentimes requiring in patchwork trapping and pressure; however, in the meantime, Nesmith deserves credit for stepping up, both with regard to his own game and for a lineup that has become more competitive with the insertion of what he brings as an upgrade in mobility and hustle. In that regard, the bend in his growth curve along with providing an ad hoc means for being in games has been somewhat emblematic of what this season has become for the Pacers.