Three games into both a new season and new era, the Indiana Pacers are off to a terrible start. The team fell to 0-3 Saturday night after a blowout loss at home to the Utah Jazz in which Indiana scored just 27 points during the second half.
After the offseason switch to a “space and pace” style of play, offense wasn’t supposed to be the problem for the Pacers this season, but so far, they’ve looked out of sorts and unsure of themselves at both ends of the floor. Indiana’s offense has often started well but stalled in crucial moments, while their defense simply starts badly and finishes worse. Along with their offensive inconsistency, the Pacers own an astounding 130.3 defensive rating during the fourth quarter and have blown late leads in two of their three losses.
Not surprisingly, Indiana hasn’t witnessed a ton of positives during its bad start, with one notable exception: the play of rookie center Myles Turner.
Although Turner has only played in a pair of games after missing the season opener –– yes, that’s how few positives there have been since game one –– he’s shown the potential to be an electric player during his limited minutes. Almost as soon as he checked into his first game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Turner did this:
The Pacers haven’t had a young big man do that type of thing in a really long time, probably since the days of Jermaine O’Neal. It’s not the only thing Turner can do either; he’s already shown strong defensive timing and shot-blocking abilities as well as his mythical jump shot, which actually does look like the unique long-range weapon it’s been billed as. Here’s Turner hitting a step-back jumper over Brandan Wright later in the game:
With the possible exceptions of DeMarcus Cousins or Al Horford, step-back 22-footers aren’t something that 6-11 centers in the NBA really “do.” The fact that he can make dynamic plays on both ends of the floor elevates his game to a level that few really can, especially when combined with the range of his offense. Even though his back-to-the-basket game is still developing, he’s Indiana’s oasis among an arid offensive frontcourt.
Ian Mahinmi has played nicely so far as the Pacers’ interim successor to Roy Hibbert, but he really should be a backup or spot starter, and Turner has already started to play like the true heir Indiana drafted him to be. He’s averaging 15.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes so far while shooting 57 percent, and both the team’s defensive and overall rebounding percentages have increased when he’s on the floor. Were it not for Turner’s 4.4 fouls per 36, his numbers would be virtually perfect.
Somehow, Mahinmi has managed to be worse so far, fouling 6.5 times per 36 minutes, but the problem with swapping him for Turner as the starter is that Turner is currently on a minutes restriction following a series of nagging leg injuries during training camp. Since he’s also practically still growing at just 19 years old, the Pacers want to be careful with how rapidly he sees the floor, despite the fact that he’s obviously better than the rest of their options. Regardless, it’s difficult to keep him straddled to the bench for the uninspiring play of Jordan Hill or Lavoy Allen, who have been liabilities so far as rotation staples.
The difficult reality is that with such talent, there’s a lot at stake with Turner, so Indiana is right to maintain a long-term outlook with him, especially since they’re clearly not winning anything of meaning this season.
The other benefit with keeping Turner on the bench is it allows him to continue working against other teams’ second units and ease his way into NBA action. He can build confidence this way, and Vogel can elect to stagger his minutes to get him work against starting units as he sees fit. Turner is still learning his way into the NBA: navigating when to shoot, his foul rate and the nuances of pick-and-roll defense, so it can be more helpful for many rookies to take their initial regular-season reps against bench units.
However, if Turner continues to play this well, it’s going to be tough to limit his minutes too severely unless his health becomes an issue again. The rookie out of Texas seems like a smart, humble young player whose abilities could turn him into a lethal weapon in today’s NBA. He’s looking like potentially a big-time steal already from this year’s draft, and potentially the answer to the Pacers’ prayers as they try to press on through early adversity in their new era.
*All stats courtesy of NBA Stats.*