In the Something To Prove series, we’ll take a look at a few players from each team with — you guessed it — something to prove during the 2017-18 season. Some may be at a career crossroads, while others may need to prove an added part of their game is sustainable.
The Indiana Pacers are coming off a drama-filled season. They entered with high hopes, thanks to the acquisitions of Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young. On paper, the Pacers had one of the most balanced starting fives in the East. The expectation was for them to contend for a top-four seed, and make a deep enough playoff run to convince star forward Paul George to stay long term.
Unfortunately, the Pacers underachieved. They only won 42 games, finishing seventh in the conference. They were promptly swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. Rumors of George’s desire to play for the Los Angeles Lakers became louder; the Pacers bit the bullet and dealt George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis — a questionable-at-best return for a player of George’s talent.
The Pacers are now on the rebuilding trail. This season will be about giving the young players reps and seeing what they have. Here are the players with the most to prove this season.
The ball is in your court: Myles Turner
Bigs that can space the floor have more value in today’s game because they open up more driving lanes for guards. Ones that can protect the rim obviously are valuable; they help prevent easy buckets and kick off fast breaks. Guys that can do both are rare — that’s why they’re called unicorns in today’s NBA.
There are only a handful of young unicorns in the NBA; guys like Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid fit the bill. Pacers center Myles Turner resides in a lower tier than those three, but still qualifies as a unicorn on the rise.
Turner averaged 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds last season. He shot 53.6 percent on field goals and 34.8 percent on 3-pointers on 115 total attempts. He was much more comfortable taking mid-range jumpers. Most of his shot attempts came between 16 feet and the 3-point line, knocking those down at a 42.9 percent clip.
Turner’s blend of athleticism, touch and a quick release made him difficult to deal with. He showcased the ability to finish above the rim, clean up the offensive glass and make jumpers with relative ease.
Defensively, he’s already one of the league’s best shot blockers. He was one of six qualified players to average at least two blocks per game (2.1), and did so in only 31.5 minutes. His length (7-foot-4 wingspan) and quick feet allow him to cover ground and save plays from the weak side. You have to be weary of his presence at all times.
Turner progressed nicely from Year 1 to Year 2. He’s darn good already. With George gone, the franchise will now be on his shoulders. That burden comes with a responsibility to improve; there are areas in his game that need refinement.
On offense, shot distribution is probably his biggest issue — if you want to call it that. Here’s one of Turner’s pick-and-pop possessions from last season:
Turner screens, re-screens, then pops out above the right elbow. He receives the kick-out pass, and calmly knocks down the jumper. There’s nothing “bad” about that play, but it also shows the next phase of his evolution. Turner needs to start turning those 19-20 footers into 3-point attempts.
In the clip above, he obviously would’ve had the opportunity for the extra point. Beyond that, think about how much pressure he would’ve put on the defense. His defender would’ve had a longer recovery, which would’ve given Turner more than enough time to fire off the shot. If his man charged at him, Turner could’ve attacked the strong closeout and gotten to the rim in a couple of dribbles.
Also worth noting: The corner defender half-lunged at Turner on that play; if he was beyond the arc, he would’ve had to rotate over. That would’ve opened up the pass to George for a corner 3.
Defensively is where Turner needs the most work. The athletic tools are there, and his timing as a shot-blocker is something that can’t be taught. It’s a matter of becoming a smarter defender; knowing when to go after the block vs. when to stay home, and a better understanding of positioning.
There are times he gambles for blocks, but that’s just the nature of the beast. Those handful of plays where he doesn’t seem to know where he should be is a bigger issue. Take this possession against the Miami Heat.
Turner recognizes that he’s guarding a non-shooter in Hassan Whiteside, so he rotates over to survey Miami’s two-man action in the corner. For whatever reason, he doesn’t come any farther than the right elbow. He’s also standing relatively flat-footed. Whiteside catches the pass, takes advantage of the inside leverage he has and gets all the way to the rim for the easy layup.
Taking another step forward would’ve made the pass to Whiteside a more difficult one. At the very least, it would’ve cramped the floor and made Whiteside’s drive more difficult than it was. There was no reason for him to leave that driving lane so open.
Turner was among the NBA’s block leaders, but ranked 20th in field goal percentage allowed at the rim among players who defended at least five shots a game. Improving on the little things will help him become a great defender rather than just being a great shot-blocker.
The Pacers are betting on Turner to make a leap. He’s the franchise cornerstone now, and will be relied on more than ever. More shots will be available, and he’ll likely have to clean up more messes defensively without George clamping wings on the perimeter. The talent is evident; hopefully, he’ll emerge as the two-way performer he’s capable of becoming.
We need answers, Sway: Victor Oladipo
This is Year 5 of Oladipo’s career, and it’s hard to gauge just how good he is.
He clearly hasn’t become a star, and he’s suffered a slight statistical decline in each of the last three seasons. On the other hand, he’s never had ideal spacing around him during his three seasons in Orlando. In terms of winning, he was in a better situation with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. Individually, he had to adjust to being off-ball more. A few tidbits:
- 26.5 percent of Oladipo’s shots came at the rim (inside of 3 feet) last season. 37.1 percent of his shots came from that range during his three-year stint in Orlando.
- Via Synergy, 21.4 percent of Oladipo’s possessions were spot-ups last season, up from 17.5 percent in his last season in Orlando.
- 37.8 percent of Oladipo’s shot attempts last season were 3’s; only 25.3 percent of his shots came 3 deep while he was in Orlando.
To Oladipo’s credit, he proved to be a reliable off-ball option. He knocked down 36.1 percent of his 3’s on 5.1 attempts. He ranked in the 85th percentile on cuts, and the 83rd percentile on off-screen plays. He was also the rare player who shot better on contested catch-and-shoot jumpers (40.5 percent) than uncontested ones (32.3 percent); we’ll have to see how sustainable that is.
Oladipo has always been more comfortable with the ball in his hands. In Indiana, he’ll likely be the primary ball-handler. The Pacers certainly won’t be Thunder-good. However, Oladipo could be primed for a big year thanks to the cast around him. Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Turner will spread the floor (to varying degrees), which should open up opportunities for Oladipo to slice-and-dice in pick-and-roll.
Will Oladipo make a mini-James Harden-like leap into the 20-5-5 club? He has the talent, and the reps will be there. He could quiet some critics and make the Pacers feel better about the George trade. Having him and Turner establish themselves as legitimate building blocks will make the rebuilding process a smoother one.
- Stephenson has fallen victim to a lack of stability. Some of that’s on him; after a career year with the Pacers in 2013-14, he left for the Charlotte Hornets despite a questionable on-court fit. Since 2014-15, Stephenson has played for six teams, averaging 8.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists with a 43/27/70 shooting split over that span. Stephenson has shown flashes of being a solid role player when he’s gotten the time; the issue is that he hasn’t gotten consistent minutes. He should have that opportunity this year. Let’s see what he does with it.
Glenn Robinson III
- After not playing much in his first two seasons, GRIII made a name for himself in Indiana last year. His blend of athleticism and 3-point shooting was intriguing, though he fell out of the rotation toward the end of the season. He was able to start in 27 games, averaging 7.9 points and five rebounds while shooting a shade over 38 percent from 3-point range. With George gone, the starting spot is wide open. Robinson will likely battle with Bojan Bogdanovic for minutes, but he should edge him out. A solid season can put him position for a nice payday next summer.