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What is the long-term outlook for Isaiah Jackson with the Pacers?

With Indiana playing four-guard lineups, it’s worth asking what the first-round pick’s role will be — both now and in the future.

Indiana Pacers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

After making only four appearances in the last 11 games, Isaiah Jackson has been assigned to the G League, the team announced.

With Aaron Nesmith being inserted into the starting lineup on December 12 against the Miami Heat, Jalen Smith, who was christened as the team’s “starting power forward” during the offseason, has transitioned to playing almost exclusively at back-up center, leaving basically no room in the regular rotation for Jackson.

Since making the change, the first unit has been outscored by 9.7 points per 100 possessions in 157 minutes of action, but Indiana has won six of the last seven games and the most-used bench lineup — featuring Smith alongside T.J. McConnell, Chris Duarte, Bennedict Mathurin, and Oshae Brissett — has shown some positive early signs of cohesion, particularly in the most recent win over Toronto.

While the Pacers were on the road for seven games at the end of November through the beginning of December, opposing teams started defending Smith with fives, either sagging off and cluttering the Haliburton-Turner pick-and-roll or marginalizing Turner and pushing him back out to the perimeter with Smith operating more often as the screener.

For his part, Smith produced in games against the Clippers and Kings, averaging 22.5 points on 58 percent shooting while being guarded by Ivica Zubac and Domantas Sabonis, but he wasn’t spacing the floor when he wasn’t shooting, which was disrupting the flow of the offense. Meanwhile, Turner scored a total of 13 points in those two games with half of his shots coming as threes, as he shot 1-of-9 from deep. To be fair, some of that could probably be attributed to early foul trouble in the game against LA, but the difference was certainly notable on Saturday, when he scored 34 points and was defended primarily by Zubac or was attacking switches as the lone big on the floor.

Of course, the Pacers currently rank 28th in opponent offensive rebounding rate, so there is a downside to playing non-stop four-guard lineups. That said, they ranked 27th in offensive rebounding rate before Smith was removed from the starting lineup, so it’s not as if that was a strength. As such, they arguably give themselves a better chance of overcoming that already existing deficiency by putting as much shooting on the floor as possible.

Take, for instance, the win over Boston, when they gave up 32 second-chance points. Likewise, they downed Cleveland at home, with Buddy Hield defending Jarrett Allen and switching, despite losing the second-chance battle by 15. In both games, the Pacers made 18 or more threes. Granted, as was the case in New Orleans when they shot just 9-of-35 from deep while surrendering 26 second-chance points, getting obliterated on the glass looks different in the light when those shots don’t fall. But, here’s the thing: The Pacers are 9-5 this season when they surrender 18 or more second-chance points — a win percentage that is actually better than their overall record.

Think of it this way: With the roster as currently constructed, the Pacers don’t have a clear way to mitigate rebounding as a weakness, so, instead, they are gambling on augmenting their identity, exchanging size for speed in hopes of knocking down shots, reeling off a ton of fast-break opportunities, and scrambling out of the double teams they often have to show against top wing threats (see: Paul George) while starting their two best perimeter defenders in Nembhard and Nesmith.

All of this makes fine sense from the perspective of immediate, on-court returns. What’s less clear is the long-term plan for Jackson and why some of this wasn’t foreseeable. Following the trade deadline, Smith shot 46 percent from three over his first seven games with the Pacers. From there on out, his percentage dipped to 32.7 percent, which was only slightly better than his career mark (31 percent). Because of his contract situation, in which Indiana’s brass was unable to offer him more than the amount of the option that Phoenix had declined, it’s possible that promising him a starting spot was critical to retaining him.

Still, this is what Rick Carlisle said at Smith’s introductory press conference, when the Maryland product was announced as the team’s starting power forward: “It’s been a while since we’ve had that really prototypical power forward.”

On the season, Smith has shot 27 percent from three with only 22 percent of his 3.5 attempts per game being contested. Meanwhile, of his 93 shots that have come as spot-up attempts, only 13 (13.9%) have come at the basket and the results of his pull-up twos have been ghastly (25%). In essence, there isn’t much that is shouting “protypical power forward” — unless the definition is cutting in and around the pick-and-roll and running the floor hard in transition, which he admittedly has done well at various points throughout the season.

Defensively, he’s likewise better suited at back-up five, where he no longer has to tangle as much with the opposing forwards, such as Julius Randle, who require being mobile on the perimeter while also withstanding physicality, that Nesmith is now competing — and being more competitive — against. Again, this makes sense!

But, what exactly is the path toward upward mobility for Isaiah Jackson, especially if the team reaches an extension agreement with Myles Turner and intends on playing Smith at back-up five?

With the exception of his 13-point performance against the Warriors, when he was catching lobs from Andrew Nembhard and had some impressive stands switching out against Steph Curry with the help of crowds, Jackson was rough during the team’s seven-game road trip before his minutes started to dwindle. In addition to some of his ongoing trouble with mastering the cat-and-mouse game of drop coverage and providing physical resistance against low-post threats (oh hi, Ivica Zubac), he shot 38 percent in the restricted area, where he has a tendency to overcomplicate the simple. At least, when he isn’t dunking.

Following that trip, he got some extended run when the Pacers went big once again for one game on December 16 against Cleveland, in which he was used predominantly as a roamer, but the Cavs eventually countered by using his man, Cedi Osman, as the screener.

Given his knack for generating steals and blocks, particularly when rotating to the ball and defending on the perimeter, it makes sense to groom him as a weak-side rim protector assigned to low-usage wings, but playing him next to Turner likely guarantees that Turner would once again be defended by fours — as was already the case with Smith, who at least attempts threes. Jackson also doesn’t make much of a case for himself over Smith — or, next to Smith — when he has stretches like this, where he never looks at the rim, doesn’t hit or hold on the screen while attempting to space the floor with playmaking, and then allows R.J. Barrett to attack the rim with his strong hand.

In defense of the Pacers, when they re-signed Smith (at nominal cost, by the way), it’s possible they expected someone else would be starting at the five. After all, they signed Deandre Ayton to a max offer sheet and rumors have been circulating about the possibility of trading Turner to the Lakers since before dinosaurs roamed the earth (approximately). And yet, Ayton and Smith played a grand total of 11 minutes together in Phoenix last season, largely because of the latter’s inflexibility defending in space, and Turner obviously hasn’t been moved with the team vastly exceeding expectations.

For now, barring injuries and assuming the Pacers continue to let the good times roll, it doesn’t appear as though there is a clear path for Jackson to play unless he’s playing with the Mad Ants. To be fair, there are other ways to develop in the NBA without regular NBA minutes, but the Pacers also targeted Jackson in the draft and now appear to have five players on the roster who they view as centers (counting Daniel Theis, who they acquired via trade before officially re-signing Smith), when they are no longer playing lineups with more than one center. All of which is to say that, whether due to logjams or not doing enough with opportunity, Isaiah Jackson isn’t just sitting beside Goga Bitadze on the sidelines — he also appears on track to become the latest version of him, watching as a first-round pick at a position with which the Pacers either already were or should’ve anticipated being fully stocked.