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Indiana Pacers’ Rookies Could Make Early Impact

Most of the talk at the Indiana Pacers’ Media Day on Monday was focused on the team’s ongoing transition to a new, faster style of play, particularly Paul George’s role within it.

This was no surprise, given that George made comments last week about how he was “not thrilled” with what he perceived to be the expectations for his new role as a part-time power forward in the Pacers’ new “space-and-pace” system. Thankfully for Indiana fans, however, George, coach Frank Vogel, and team president Larry Bird sounded optimistic and on the same page about the team’s new approach, as well as George’s potential role—far more copacetic than last week.

While both parties agreed that there’s a lot left to figure out, one thing they both raved about was how excited they are to see rookie Myles Turner in action. In fact, Vogel said that he expects to give both Turner and fellow rookie Joe Young early burn in the rotation, something he hasn’t done much with rookie players.

Much of that is due to the lack of rookie talent Vogel has coached since he took over for Jim O’Brien as interim head coach midway through the 2010-11 season. At the time, he inserted a then-rookie Paul George into the starting lineup when O’Brien wouldn’t.  But after that, he watched the team trade first-rounder Kawhi Leonard for George Hill in 2011, draft Miles Plumlee in 2012, Solomon Hill in 2013, then deal its 2014 first-round pick for Luis Scola. Not a great stretch, which makes it hard to infer any solid understanding of Vogel’s regard for rookies either.

If you believe the hype, Turner and Young appear ready to end that trend, and Vogel sounds ready to give them the opportunity. The pair was extremely impressive during their stints in summer league and have the talent to make an early impact.

Giving them early opportunities makes sense, considering how much time Indiana has left to decide in its new approach, as well as the pair’s importance going forward. That particularly applies to Turner, who, should he realize his potential, could become something of a basketball unicorn: a shot-blocking center with legitimate three-point range.

With no Roy Hibbert and plans to score a lot more points, the Pacers could use both of those skills.  And no other player on the roster at that position gives them close to what Turner might be able to. Ian Mahinmi was a nice backup rim protector behind Hibbert for years, but he struggles with foul trouble, free-throw shooting, and catching the ball, making him limited as a starter. The newly signed Jordan Hill can shoot and score but is certainly not a rim protector, while the retained Lavoy Allen is simply average on both ends.

Meanwhile, Turner would bend things in Indiana’s favor at both ends of the floor. Larry Bird called him the team’s best shooter at Media Day, which is exactly the type of thing you expect during Media Day. The Pacers don’t need that, only for defenses to regard him as a threat, and he’ll be an improvement over any other their front-court alternatives on offense. Real three-point range would split their offensive spacing wide-open, which would be the best-case scenario.

Turner’s challenge in finding the floor might not come from his competitors, however, as much as himself, namely his ability to stay out of foul trouble. Like many young big men, Turner struggled with a high foul rate during his freshman year at Texas, averaging 2.4 fouls in just 22 minutes per game, then continued to foul at a frenetic rate during summer league, where he averaged 4.7 fouls in 29 minutes per game. Cutting down on his foul rate will be a must for Turner to play consistent minutes.

While Joe Young isn’t the incredibly unique blend of size and skill that Turner is, he’s still a pretty special blend of size and skill, albeit in the other direction.

At about 6-2 and 200 pounds, Young is a skinny stick of a combo guard who can pour in baskets with the best of them. Indiana has a strong top-three of George Hill, Monta Ellis, and Rodney Stuckey in its backcourt but not much depth, and they’re counting on Young to serve as a more competent fourth guard than Toney Douglas.

Young will certainly be able to out-perform Douglas on offense, where Young already looks like a complete scorer. After struggling in his first game, he lit up the Orlando summer league and looked like he was playing on another level of competition. Young has range to spare on his outside shot, plus he can shoot it from all the in-between spots as well. So far, he’s also shown an ability to get to the line and finish against contact, skills that should carry over to the league.

Basically, as long as Young has the ball within 25 feet, it could wind up a bucket for him or someone else, since he was a four-year player who can command an offense and make good decisions.

For a Pacers team seeking to put the ball in the hoop far more than they have in recent years, Young could provide just the spark plug they’ve been looking for. He might not play any defense, but as long as he doesn’t share the floor with Monta Ellis, that shouldn’t be a problem for Indiana, who will be retooling their defense anyway, in light of their transition.

As with any rookies, there are question marks surrounding Turner and Young, and there will surely be growing pains as they break into the rotation and learn to navigate the nightly rigors of the NBA.

Both are talented and intriguing players, however, who have so far shown a ton of promise both with their play and their demeanors. The most exciting part might be that, unlike many other NBA head coaches, Vogel wants to tap into those young skills as soon as possible.

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