Until Paul George broke his leg last summer, the Indiana Pacers believed their championship window was still open. The core of George, George Hill, Roy Hibbert and David West had been to two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, formed an elite defense and parted ways with only Lance Stephenson, a polarizing player who had become arguably more trouble than he was worth.
Losing a guy like Stephenson, the LeBron Ear Whisperer, highlighted the worst thing about that core, though. In spite of all their success, those Pacers teams were incredibly boring, built far more around size and strength than speed and skill.
Their “smash mouth” strategy took its worst form last season, when the Pacers missed George and Hill, their two best perimeter players, for 76 and 39 games, respectively, and slogged through a trying 38-44 season. It’s no wonder both West and Hibbert were happy to leave.
After suffering through last season, team president Larry Bird was happy to see them go as well, leading the team through a dramatic and expedited transition to a much smaller, faster squad. That transition hasn’t been limited to swapping out top guys like West and Hibbert for veterans like Monta Ellis or Jordan Hill, either –– it’s been a complete strategic transformation that’s affected the bottom of Indiana’s roster as well.
Rather than using their remaining roster spots on random journeymen fail-safes, Bird and the rest of the Pacers’ brass have decided to take flyers on some undeveloped young guys in hopes of uncovering a rotation player. As a lottery pick and gifted seven-footer, Myles Turner represents an obvious potential piece of Indiana’s future foundation, but after him, the Pacers went out of their way to pursue a handful of other intriguing young players as well: drafting guard Joseph Young in the second round, trading for Cleveland’s second-round big man Rakeem Christmas and signing forward Glenn Robinson III.
Filling out their roster with guys like this stands in stark contrast to the Rasual Butler, Donald Sloan types Indiana has been utilizing the last few seasons, and what’s even more remarkable is the commitment the Pacers have made, giving Young and Christmas mini first-round contracts, four-year deals with the first two years guaranteed. While the details of Robinson III’s deal aren’t yet known, Woj at Yahoo! Sports reported that it was at least a three-year deal as well.
Indiana appears exhaustively committed to this strategic overhaul, recognizing that change often starts at the bottom and taking a chance on some young, cheap assets can give you that bargain production so often found on championship teams.
For guys flirting with the fringes of the roster, there really is quite a bit to like about the Pacers’ new young guys. Young led the Orlando Summer League in scoring at 22.5 points per game, playing with a level of control on offense that seemed beyond the other players. He already looks like a maestro in the pick-and-roll, with the ability to keep his dribble effectively, make the right passes and otherwise kill people with a smooth jumper and decent finishing ability for his size.
Size will be Young’s biggest problem, as he stands just 6-2 and plays like it on defense. Being from Oregon, he draws comparisons to Aaron Brooks, and although Young is a little larger than that, he plays like it on defense. Brooks also has a tighter handle, but so far, Young seems like a better decision-maker, with all the confidence and none of the foolishness of a guy like Brooks.
Indiana scooped up Christmas with the Cavaliers trying to unload money and gain an asset to possibly pair with Brendan Haywood’s contract in a deal, and the Pacers were happy to take him, as the four-year big man from Syracuse was a player who had impressed the team during his pre-draft workouts. Ideally, the 6-9 forward with a 7-5 wingspan would provide a defensively-inclined complement to Turner’s offensive versatility.
Christmas has some work to do to get there, however, as even his profile isn’t particularly encouraging. He spent his first three years at Syracuse under-performing before breaking out a bit as a senior, leaving him underdeveloped and already older than some guys who have been in the league for multiple seasons, since Christmas turns 24 in December.
Lack of effort and concentration reportedly had a lot to do with his first three years of production, and he relied heavily on his very good athleticism, not basketball IQ, for success. He also suffers from the same curse as every Syracuse big man for the last 40 years: playing in Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone scheme means he’ll have to learn NBA man-to-man concepts completely from scratch. That could become a big issue, especially in today’s NBA where team defenses have never been deployed more creatively.
Offensively, he’s a bit of a dinosaur, using post-ups and put-backs to eat up raw points, without much finesse or creating ability.
As mentioned, Christmas does have the athletic tools to potentially overcome this difficult combination of too much age and not enough experience, with enviable length, good leaping ability and the mobility to switch onto perimeter players with a bit more seasoning. Thankfully for him, the Pacers have some experience developing big men from the Big East who seem unready for some of the most fundamental aspects of NBA play –– see Hibbert, Roy –– and coach Frank Vogel is also a player’s coach guy who puts defense first.
It’s harder to see where the Robinson III signing fits into this roster, especially given the Pacers’ current glut of wing players, but if Indiana is aspiring to build an amorphous, super-versatile army of athletic 3-and-D guys, a developed “Lil Dog” would fit right into that scheme.
The younger Robinson is rough around the edges, but he was a highly touted recruit out of high school who’s still just 21 years old. Given his age, he’s still developing in all areas, partly because of all the roles he’s been asked to fill at the lower levels with his multi-faceted abilities. One thing he has shown is the ability to bring the hammer down.
He’s a great athlete with great pedigree, obviously, and coming back to his home state of Indiana could be a good thing for him. While homecomings can be distractions for many players, Robinson, with a father who played in the NBA in his home Midwest, should have a unique support system to combat those temptations.
Spending time around Paul George should be a boon for Robinson, as George spent much of his rookie year as a raw, unproven talent relegated to the end of Jim O’Brien’s bench. He should be able to offer some good leadership for Robinson, who’s already on his third team before his second year.
There are a million things that can happen in the development of young players, and one of them that goes awry most often is their team situations. Too often young talent finds itself being criminally misused or under-addressed on teams in poor situations, then falls by the wayside and out of the league. For that reason, as well as the million observable elements that have already affected the developments of this young trio, projecting their contributions is a total shot in the dark.
That doesn’t mean the chances aren’t worth taking, as young contributors on rookie contracts are the most valuable assets this league has to offer. By flipping their last roster spots more toward upside and potential than security and cost-effectiveness, the Pacers have given themselves a strong chance to enjoy several of these players and accelerate their transformation in the process.