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D-League a Learning Ground for Rakeem Christmas

For the last few years, several NBA team have shared the Fort Wayne Mad Ants as a mutual D-league affiliate, the Indiana Pacers among them. This offseason, though, the Pacers apparently got sick of sharing, and the team decided to lock down (i.e., purchase) the Mad Ants as a one-to-one affiliate, essentially a minor league squad.

The purchase was kind of a big moment for the D-league since Fort Wayne had been the last unaffiliated team, and once they became Pacers property, the NBA had to start making arrangements for how the rest of the teams could continue to use the D-league. Not surprisingly, several other teams, including Charlotte and Chicago, have since decided to simply invest in their own affiliate and not have to worry about sharing the development process for their younger prospects.

The D-league has grown as teams have started to realize the potential benefits of a one-to-one affiliate in terms of player development. The Pacers were lucky enough to grab the last second on the bus for a second, and they have already put the Mad Ants to good use.

Two players from Indiana’s active roster, big men Rakeem Christmas and Shayne Whittington, have been in Fort Wayne since the beginning of the season as the team tries to maximize their reps. The Pacers also own the D-league rights to a trio of other players in CJ Fair, Kadeem Jack, and Terran Petteway, which simply means they were with Indiana, cut, then cleared waivers and were claimed by the Pacers in order to oversee them with the Mad Ants. Fort Wayne has benefitted from the allocations as well, currently percentage points back of first place in their division at 8-5.

Christmas has been the team’s best player so far, averaging 19.2, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game so far according to NBA Stats, and he was recently named D-league performer of the week as well. The Pacers picked Christmas up from Cleveland with the second-round pick they grabbed in the Roy Hibbert dump, and he looks like he could become a player so far with the Mad Ants. He’s athletic but not as strong as he should be for his size, and, although he’s better than expected on offense, he lacks on defense, which isn’t surprising for a Syracuse/Jim-Boeheim-coached big man.

Upside and Motor’s D-league expert Chris Reichert recently did a Mad Ants Q&A session with Ben Gibson of 8 Points, 9 Seconds, and he spoke on several potential Pacers, including Christmas:

“I think he has work to do on the defensive end. I’ve watched multiple games where his effort on that end is less than what would be desired in the NBA.”

Lack of effort would also explain why Christmas hasn’t received a call-up from Frank Vogel and the big-man-starved Pacers, who are currently missing rookie center Myles Turner but don’t need another minus defender.

On the other hand, Whittington, Larry Bird’s apparent pet project, has disappointed on offense in his second year with the organization. Reichert sees better things ahead, however, following a rib injury:

“I have to imagine it’s still bothering him because he is simply missing open shots right now. He’s played eight games with Fort Wayne and as you mentioned he’s really struggled to shoot at 29 percent overall and 24 percent from 3-point range. (Writer’s note: Whittington is now shooting 35/23 percent splits.) Whittington’s value is as a stretch big, so if he’s missing shots it really hurts him long-term. I think he will break out of his funk shortly, though. He’s a proven shooter…”

The Pacers signed the undrafted Whittington shortly following the 2014 NBA Draft and has hung on to him to this point, so it seems unlikely that a slump would cause them to cut bait with him before he had a chance to play out the Mad Ants’ first affiliated season.

While Indiana can’t control their potential NBA landing spots, Fair, Petteway, and Jack have all played respectably to this point as well, and if nothing else, the franchise has some wing players who are already familiar with their system available to them in case of a roster emergency.

Joe Young, a second-round rookie from Oregon, has been little-used so far this season with the Pacers, but last weekend, Indiana shipped him off to Fort Wayne for a quick two-game stint before pulling him back to the big leagues for Monday’s game against the Raptors. The team is clearly still learning all the ways it can utilize the Mad Ants. It’s unclear if any of the rest of these guys, Christmas and Whittington included, will see real time with Indiana’s big club this year, but they might someday.

Either way, the Pacers’ already extensive activity with their D-league affiliate is encouraging and shows great attention to detail. Taken in consideration with their ongoing switch to a more modern playing style, the moves demonstrate a shift in thinking from the Indiana brass to focus on new ideas, player development, and continuity.

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