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Breaking Down the Training Camp Battle: Pacers Center

With training camp starting up soon, there are a few exciting battles for positions taking place across the NBA. Whether it be for a starting position or rotation minutes, there are places where minutes are up for grabs. We got you covered here at Today’s Fastbreak, and we’ll continue with the Pacers’ center spot.

Much has been made of Paul George’s move to power forward, and his reluctance to do so. George’s effectiveness and ability to stay healthy as 4 have been talked about a ton, which makes sense, because it’s rare to see a superstar go through a dramatic shift in system on the same team.

But the other issue for the Pacers is how important the center spot now becomes, particularly on defense. David West wasn’t an all-world defender, but the Pacers could rely on him to rebound and absorb the beating of opposing teams down low. With George slotted as the power forward, the ability of the center in Indiana’s lineup to protect the rim is magnified.

Ian Mahinmi will likely be the starter at the beginning of the season, and small ball will hide his inability to do much on offense. Mahinmi doesn’t do anything on offense, as he had the eighth-lowest usage percentage for any player who played at least 15 minutes a game, per NBA.com. He took just 24 shots all season from beyond 10 feet and made just 6 of them.

He also struggled mightily at the free throw line, shooting just 30.4 percent on 102 attempts. This might be an aberration, however, as Mahinmi had never shot worse than 60 percent in a season before last year.

It was difficult for the Pacers to score with either Mahinmi or Roy Hibbert on the court last year clogging the lane. Hibbert at times looked like he forgot how to play offense, and Mahinmi’s lack of skill allowed defenders to clog the lane on Indiana.

That, combined with Indiana’s lack of players who could get all the way into the lane off the bounce, caused the Pacers to have the third-fewest attempts per game within five feet of the basket. It’s hard to be efficient on offense without getting to the rim unless you have several of the best shotmakers in the league.

With George at the 4, however, Mahinmi’s offensive issues aren’t as much of a problem. He’ll be asked to set screens and roll to the rim, and the Pacers will try and keep four players capable of shooting and driving on the floor with him. While Mahinmi has had issues catching the ball at times, he’s big and long enough to command attention going to the rim.

This allows Mahinmi to stay on the floor, and he’s the best fit defensively for the Pacers small lineup. Mahinmi is a solid post defender, and Frank Vogel, an excellent defensive coach, will do everything he can to keep Mahinmi and his shot-blocking near the rim. Indiana was actually better last year with Mahinmi on the floor than Hibbert on defense, and Larry Bird and company are betting on that to continue.

The other issue with Mahinmi, however, is he’s never played big minutes. He’s been in the league for at least parts of seven seasons, but he’s never cracked 20 minutes a game. In a fast-paced offense, it’s hard to imagine him getting even close to 30 minutes a game, leaving plenty of other minutes up for grabs.

Jordan Hill will likely snag some of those minutes, but he’ll have to rebound from an inefficient 2014-15. Hill’s counting numbers were up last year, but he took plenty of contested midrange jumpers and wasn’t particularly good at hitting them. Of the 30 players who attempted at least three jumpers between 15 and 19 feet per game, Hill’s 37.3 percent shooting ranked 28th. That’s a far cry from what the Pacers saw with David West last year, who knocked them down at a 48.9 percent clip.

Hill’s offense should pick up in efficiency this year, as he’ll no longer be one of the top options on the team. If Hill is asked to hit open shots, he provides much more range than Lavoy Allen and Mahinmi. It’s his defense that might be an issue.

Despite playing on a team of turnstiles, Hill’s bad defense still stuck out at times. Hill’s defensive rating was only 0.4 points better than the artist formerly known as Carlos Boozer last year. He didn’t benefit from the horrid defenders in front of him, but it’ll be difficult to ask Hill to be the only rim protector in a lineup. It’s hard to imagine a defense surviving more than short stretches with Hill as the only big man.

Lavoy Allen has shown flashes of effectiveness and is a decent bench big. He’s not a great shooter, but he’s a solid screener and defender, and a much better passer than Mahinmi. Allen has a limited game but can definitely contribute for a few minutes a night off the bench.

Each of these three options offers a different strength, but all of them are very limited players. The Pacers can certainly make it work on both ends, but, to be a serious threat in the East this year, will likely need a player with a higher ceiling making an impact.

Enter Myles Turner, the 11th pick in this year’s draft. Turner has the raw ability to be the best offensive and defensive player of the bunch. He’s flashed a better stroke than any of the others, and could take the offense to a new level if he can stretch the floor as a five.

Defensively, Turner has all the tools to be dominant. He’s still raw, and let his athleticism cover up his rotations a lot in college. This won’t fly in the NBA, and Vogel will have to make sure Turner is in the right place at the right time. Turner showed in summer league he might be a little further along than anyone could’ve thought after his time at Texas.

Turner has the chance to grow into a star, but the Pacers will need some of that growth this year. Teams expecting a rookie to be a difference maker are usually disappointed, especially when the rookie in question is a 19-year-old big man.

But the Pacers don’t have a choice if this team is going to make a leap this year. None of the other bigs on the roster offer near the same upside as Turner on either end. Turner doesn’t need to be an All-Star this year, but he does need to give the Pacers another dimension by the end of the season. If the rookie can provide some help down low to fortify the talented compilation of guards and wings, Indiana could be a dangerous out come playoff time.

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