Last month, the 2014 NBA Draft featured a number of players who had become household names after years of being hyped up as potential stars. Players like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were selected and the class was regarded as one of the best in recent memory.
Well, the 2015 NBA Draft is shaping up to be loaded with talent as well. The class features a number of potential franchise-changing players, particularly in the paint, and it’s never too early to start looking ahead at the next wave of draft prospects. Here are some players to keep an eye on over the next year, as they may be top picks in the 2015 NBA Draft:
Jahlil Okafor – 6’11, 272 lbs. Center (Duke)
Okafor will enter the 2014-15 NCAA season as the favorite to end up the top overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He’s the most fundamentally sound and skilled low-post player to come around since Al Jefferson. While lacking the overall talent level of a DeMarcus Cousins or the pure athleticism of a Dwight Howard, Okafor possesses something just as important: true go-to scoring ability. In a league where most centers are asked simply to focus on defense, rebounding and finishing the easy attempts that come their way in the interior, Okafor will immediately become the cornerstone of any offense. He has incredible touch, can finish with either hand, knows how to use his body and has a vast array of post moves he’s already become adept at executing. Already quite experienced at dealing with double-teams, Okafor also understands when to pass out and re-post, choosing when to attack wisely.
Despite being the most dominant player in his class for a few years now, Okafor still has his detractors who knock him for his lack of athleticism and defensive effort. He isn’t overly explosive, but he’s far from a below-the-rim player. When he wants to, Okafor is very capable of going over the top of defenders and finishing strong at the trim. However, what he really excels at is creating separation, absorbing contact, shielding off shot blockers and using his touch to score.
The defensive concerns are legitimate, as Okafor is far more dominant on the offensive side of the court than he is on the opposite end. It’s going to be his play defensively that likely makes or breaks his chances at being the number one overall pick. He doesn’t have to block multiple shots a game, although he does appear to have at least average shot blocking instincts at worst. What’s more important for Okafor is to be a solid one-on-one defender in the interior, a willing helper and an active rebounder.
Blessed with incredible natural strength, physical peers for Okafor up to this point in his playing career have been few and far between. In preparation for the next level where players with similar physical attributes are far more common, he’s going to have to dedicate himself to improving his strength and conditioning. He’d be wise to start that process while at Duke, where anything short of a Final Four appearance in presumably his lone season there will be viewed as a disappointment. He’s joined by a dynamic recruiting class, a solid group of returners and has one of the best of all-time coaching him Mike Krzyzewski. Everything is in place for him to meet the great expectations set for him; he just has to seize the moment.
Karl Towns – 7’0, 248 lbs. Center (Kentucky)
Far from a traditional center like Okafor, Towns embodies the new-age big man, who can do a little bit of everything and is more comfortable away from the basket than he is right next to it. His versatility and skill set are off the charts, as he can shoot the ball from all over the floor and can even handle it a little bit. He also has a high basketball IQ to go along with his impressive skill set and physical attributes.
Although much different than Okafor, they share similar weaknesses as Towns could stand to chisel his frame and make his presence felt more on the defensive side of the court. Still, far less skilled and talented big men have gone in the top five of recent drafts and there’s little reason to think that Towns won’t go in that range, whenever he decides to declare.
It may seem a bit foolhardy not to assume that a top ranked prospect from Kentucky wouldn’t bolt after a single season, as Wildcats head coach John Calipari has coined the term “succeed and proceed” with many of his best players leaving after one year. But Towns is walking into an extremely deep frontcourt, where there does not appear to be any possible way to give every player the minutes they deserve. Leaving out Towns, who in my opinion has the highest upside of any Kentucky player next season, Calipari already has Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Trey Lyles to split minutes up for at the power forward and center positions. With the six of them, Calipari has three different combinations of power forward/center combos that would start at most other D-I schools. Towns has always talked about how important his education is for him and how seriously he is going to the academic requirements that come with being a student-athlete. If he doesn’t get the kind of playing time he’s hoping to as a freshman, that could lead him to stay an extra year than originally anticipated.
It seems like every year there is a top-ranked prospect who shocks everyone by passing up on the making the jump to the league right away and Towns could be the next, especially given the logjam he’s going to have to fight through on the Kentucky frontline.
Cliff Alexander – 6’9, 254 lbs. Center (Kansas)
With the departure of Joel Embiid, the center position is wide open at Kansas for Alexander to come in and dominate right away. Set to turn 19 years old early in the season, there will only be a handful of players in the NCAA who can handle his combination of brute strength and standout athleticism. It’s young monsters like Alexander who are the reason why rims are reinforced the way they are now, otherwise he’d be tearing them down with regularity. When he gets the ball in the interior, he’s thinking one thing and one thing only: finish strong.
At 6’9, Alexander does not have the size for the center position. NBA teams would prefer for him to be on the other side of 6’10, however a 7’4 wingspan and 9’0 standing reach will go a long way in helping make up for the fact that he may only be 6’8 without shoes on. What will help teams look past his actual height more than anything, though, is the way that he plays. Alexander is aggressive and borderline mean on the court. He knows one way to play and that’s by putting everything he has out on the floor for every second that he’s on it.
In order to be more than just a rebounder and finisher at the next level, Alexander is going to have to step outside of his comfort zone in order to expand and refine his offensive game. Right now, he’s primarily a finisher. If he can develop a reliable jump hook and even a mid-range jumper, we’re talking about someone who could fight his way into the number one pick discussion. Defensively, Alexander makes a much bigger impact than Okafor or Towns, which bodes well for his stock as long as he can show significant offensive improvement over the course of the year.
Given his physicality and motor, a primary concern for Alexander will be learning how to avoid and play through foul trouble. If he can’t adjust to the way the game is called at the collegiate level, he’ll get picked apart for his other weaknesses even more and see his stock tumble as a result.
Emmanuel Mudiay – 6’5, 200 lbs. Point Guard (China)
Mudiay shocked the basketball world this summer by announcing that he would not be attending SMU and would instead pursue playing internationally in preparation for the 2015 NBA Draft. Mudiay was originally viewed as a trendsetter, being the first top-five recruit to commit to SMU and Larry Brown. However, now he’s going to be blazing down the same trail Jeremy Tyler and Brandon Jennings did with mixed results.
As much as Mudiay has disputed reports about his academic eligibility, the recent closing of his prep school says it all. So, he may have been forced to take this route, but will be paid handsomely as he recently inked a $1.2 million contract with the Guangdong Southern Tigers.
While the money may not have been as great as it is in China, other overseas leagues probably would have been better for his development. The CBA does not start until December and the league has a reputation for being more about the show than actual player development or great competition.
The hope was a year under Brown at SMU would help develop Mudiay’s point guard skills, specifically improving his decision making and shot selection. At 6’5 with a great handle and ability to get to the rim virtually whenever he wants, playing under the structure and discipline of Brown could have helped make Mudiay much more efficient and potentially even the number one overall pick.
Mudiay is losing out on that and putting himself in a position where he’ll have a lot of questions to answer and things to prove during the pre-draft process. A consensus among scouts and executives is that he won’t be able to help his stock as much playing in China as he would have been able to in the NCAA. There’s just as much to like about him as a prospect as there was before all of this went down, but aside from the $1.2 million, it’s looking like he’s headed toward a throwaway year developmentally. The risk associated with taking him out of China will likely be far greater than it would have been out of SMU after a year under Brown. Not only could that knock him down a couple spots, but it all but removes him from top pick discussion.
Myles Turner – 6’11, 242 lbs. Center (Texas)
There’s a handful of talent evaluators who feel like Turner could end up being the best big man in the class, which is great praise considering the ceilings of Okafor, Towns and Alexander. The potential is certainly there as he has a lot of impressive tools, including the ability to score inside and out beyond the three-point line, great rebounding instincts, a solid understanding of the game and good size and length for his position.
At Texas, Turner is going to have to put all of these things together and consistently impact the game like he is capable of. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be one of the most productive big men in college basketball next season, but he’s going to have to give Rick Barnes reason to keep him out on the floor as he’ll have competition for minutes with Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley. Those upperclassmen may not have the same potential as Turner, but Barnes, whose seat isn’t scorching hot but far from cold, needs to win. He’s not going to sacrifice playing time for more productive players just to develop Turner. But if he goes out and earns the minutes, he’ll see the floor more than either one.
Turner’s playing time could be decided by his defense, as he will almost certainly be one of the top offensive options for the Longhorns from day one. If he can’t hold his own in man-to-man defensive settings or help adequately in the pick-and-roll, Turner could fall out of the one-and-done discussion due to being too much of a project to take in the top 10.
Honorable Mention: Stanley Johnson (Arizona), Kelly Oubre (Kansas), Kristaps Porzingis (International), Mario Hezonja (International) and Justise Winslow (Duke)
Make sure to look out for our continuing coverage of the 2015 NBA Draft, next up we’ll take a look at the top returners and best international prospects!
Report: Jimmy Butler Asks For A Trade
According to Shams Charania, Wolves forward Jimmy Butler has asked to be traded.
Jimmy Butler has requested a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, league sources tell me and @JonKrawczynski. Butler has given Minnesota a list of one-to-three teams with whom he’s open to signing extension, in anticipation of trade.
Jimmy Butler has requested a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, league sources tell me and @JonKrawczynski. Butler has given Minnesota a list of one-to-three teams with whom he's open to signing extension, in anticipation of trade.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) September 19, 2018
Source: Shams Charania, via Twitter
New Orleans Pelicans 2018-19 NBA Season Preview
The New Orleans Pelicans have all the parts to be a very, very good NBA team. The problem for New Orleans is they have struggled to get and stay healthy, which has derailed them in previous seasons. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the New Orleans Pelicans in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.
Last year’s regular season ended in a flurry. A large number of teams spent the last few weeks of the season jockeying for positioning in an extremely competitive Western Conference playoff race. In the end, the New Orleans Pelicans were able to secure the sixth seed and a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. As it turned out, the first-round matchup was a smashing success as the Pelicans were able to smother the Blazers’ star backcourt on their way to a four-game sweep. Unfortunately, the Pelicans then ran into the unstoppable buzz saw that was last year’s Golden State Warriors team.
Notably, last year’s team withstood the midseason loss of DeMarcus Cousins. That loss was mitigated by the acquisition of Nikola Mirotic, who was effectively rescued and revived in New Orleans. In the offseason, the franchise watched Cousins leave to join the Warriors and Rajon Rondo leave to join the Los Angeles Lakers. In the meantime, the Pelicans have undergone some roster tinkering as they look to solidify their standing as a playoff team and pick up where they left off.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a terrible injury, the New Orleans Pelicans finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the league behind Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Boogie is gone for good now, though, and The Brow has a new partner in Julius Randle and a returning Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. The overshadowed loss for Alvin Gentry will be Rajon Rondo’s playmaking ability, but they’re counting on Elfrid Payton to fill the void as one of the top under-the-radar signings in the league. Considering the way they played in the postseason and that Davis is a top three superstar in the league, it’d be hard to see too much of a regression. The bad news, however, is that NOLA plays in a Western Conference with plenty of competition.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
At least among playoff hopefuls, the Pelicans might have the largest range of projections and expectations across the NBA landscape. There are some who believe that losing DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, even despite Cousins’ Achilles tear that looks to keep him out for much of the upcoming season, is too big a blow and the Pelicans will be in a dogfight just to make the playoffs. Then there are those who look at their post-Cousins injury splits and wonder whether the team wasn’t slightly better without him anyway. Julius Randle is an excellent acquisition who can fill at least some of Boogie’s previous roles, and the Pels will be banking on more seamless lineups around Anthony Davis at the five to help offset the ostensible talent loss they took in the offseason. They’ll be one of the league’s most interesting windows into how fit and talent coexist – or don’t.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
The Pelicans actually started to look like the team they were supposed to be. The issue for them has never been about talent. The roster has been loaded with the talent. The question was durability and consistency. The Pelicans broke through last season and with some solid additions this offseason it’s hard not to believe the Pels will get right back after it. The problem for New Orleans is the West is tough and as we saw last season the difference between home court in the playoffs can come down to two or three games. The Pelicans are easy to like, mainly because Anthony Davis is such a special player. But it’s also easy to see that if the Pelicans don’t get aggressive right out of the gate, the specter of him being unhappy and wanting out starts to become real.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
While DeMarcus Cousins is an elite center, I think moving Anthony Davis to the center position and plugging Julius Randle into the rotation will mostly address Cousins’ departure. Randle is a nice addition to the Pelicans’ roster and should fit in nicely alongside Davis and Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt. While I like a lot of the talent on the Pelicans’ roster and the reclamation projects of Elfrid Payton and Jahlil Okafor, I am concerned that even a few injuries could quickly derail the Pelicans. They are already limited on the wing, especially at small forward, and are relying on a few guys who are playing out of position and/or have past injury concerns. I am hoping the Pelicans will continue to surprise us as they did at the end of last season, but there are a few red flags heading into the season.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Anthony Davis
No surprise here. Davis has everything you can want in a superstar. He is talented, has unbelievable length, is athletic and has the basketball intelligence to dominate consistently. Even better for New Orleans, Davis is the homegrown superstar that has nearly maximized his potential and should be an MVP candidate every year should he play up to his abilities. These past two years Davis has been averaging over 28 points per game and has been astounding on the offensive end. Last season, Davis took and made career-high numbers in three-pointers, which made his offensive game even more dynamic. Simply put, this offense revolves around Davis, a trend which should continue this season.
Top Defensive Player: Jrue Holiday
Jrue Holiday is the lead defender for the Pelicans. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus ranking, among point guards Holiday is fourth in the league and, according to NBA.com, is top-15 in the league in defensive win shares. Holiday’s role on the team is of course not as a defensive specialist only. Last year saw Holiday make the transition from point guard to more of a combo/shooting guard role. Whether guarding opposing shooting or point guards, Holiday has the physical tools and awareness to execute the Pelicans’ defensive schemes effectively. So long as the team is able to find an adequate replacement for Rondo at the lead guard position, Holiday should be able to continue in this role, which he thrived in last season on both ends of the court.
Top Playmaker: Elfrid Payton
My prediction is that Holiday will initially work on the ball and serve as the placeholder as the Pelican’s top playmaker. Holiday averaged six assists a game last year on his way to a career season. But part of his success came due to a purposeful transition to the shooting guard position. Now Rondo is gone and Holiday will hold this place until Elfrid Payton can show that he is ready to take over as the team’s lead guard.
Payton goes into his fifth season needing to prove he can become the player the Orlando Magic had originally envisioned years ago and take over Rondo’s role. Payton remains a below average offensive scoring threat, unable to hit outside shots with great consistency, but Rondo was able to succeed with similar shortcomings. In fact, Rando really thrived when Cousins went down, allowing Rondo to have the space and freedom to use his creativity to penetrate and operate in the lane. Now Cousins and Rondo are gone and the table is set for Payton to take over.
Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis
The nod again goes to Davis. It’s not typical for a frontcourt player to take the mantle of top clutch player but Davis is not a typical player. According to NBA.com’s clutch time data, Davis has a very high net rating in clutch time, indicating a strong impact on both offensive and defensive net rating (much higher than Cousins), as well as strong shooting percentages. Davis’ strong clutch play is aided by his outside shooting, strong court vision and adept ball handling for a big man. When the game goes into crunch time, Davis should have the ball in his hands.
Unheralded Player: Frank Jackson
Die-hard Pelicans fans are excited for and rooting for Frank Jackson to make some inroads at the point guard position. Jackson was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Dwayne Bacon. Jackson doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of New Orleans and for good reason. He has yet to play a single minute of regular season NBA basketball after inking a multiyear contract with the Pelicans last year. However, that doesn’t stop fans from rooting for Jackson, who has tremendous athletic abilities and high upside potential. Whether Jackson can handle point guard responsibilities is an unanswered question. Additionally, Jackson now has veteran Jarrett Jack slotted ahead of him in the rotation. Jack agreed to terms on a deal with the Pelicans earlier this week.
Best New Addition: Julius Randle
Rondo’s departure, unlike that of Cousins, was more of a surprise for the franchise. However, it did allow the team to sign Julius Randle. Although technically a free agent signing, Randle and Rondo swapped places almost as if the teams had actually executed a trade. The Pelicans are thrilled to have Randle and he is poised to play a very significant role with the team.
Randle is under contract at roughly nine million a year for the next two years, although the second year is a player option, which is significant. With multiple expected suitors next offseason, this season may ultimately serve as an extended tryout for the next free agent market. Randle showed steady progress year-to-year in Los Angeles and many Lakers fans were sad to see him leave. He proved himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in transition and is a handful down low because of his quickness, agility and strength. That same strength serves him well as he can be a tenacious one-on-one defender when locked in and has demonstrated this against the Pelicans when matched up with Davis in the past.
– James Blancarte
WHO WE LIKE
1. Jahlil Okafor
The Jahlil Okafor experience continues. It’s easy to forget that in his rookie year, Okafor started nearly every game he played in, averaging 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks in 30 minutes per game. Of course, that play came in the middle of “The Process” and didn’t translate to winning basketball. Now, after some tough seasons, Okafor is fighting to prove that he still belongs in the league. Okafor comes to the Pelicans as an afterthought after failing to find his footing in Brooklyn. New Orleans has a loaded frontcourt that doesn’t have a lot of extra minutes. With lower expectations, Okafor can contribute in spot minutes and step up should anyone ahead of him go down with injuries. Indications are that Okafor is eager to play with and learn from Davis and likes the city of New Orleans, as well as the franchise. Look for the Pelicans to give Okafor a chance to prove his worth when the opportunity presents itself.
2. E’Twaun Moore
Among the weaknesses the Pelicans have to overcome is the lack of viable options at the small forward position. E’Twuan Moore solidified his hold on the small forward position last year in part due to the unavailability of Solomon Hill. Despite being undersized and a more natural fit at shooting guard, Moore stepped up to meet his team’s needs. With Holiday thriving at the two, Moore’s projected place on this team is at small forward. Moore helps spread the floor with his three-point shooting and is a capable scoring threat overall. At 6-foot-4, Moore will most often be at a size disadvantage on defense but handles it reasonably well. Hill is slated to return but is likely to back up the Moore due to his poor outside shooting. Unless the Pelicans make a move, expect Moore to continue to play heavy minutes at small forward.
3. The Randle and Mirotic Frontcourt Combo
Randle and Mirotic are a tremendous pair of frontcourt players to pair with Davis. However, with Randle’s player option, both players are essentially free agents after this upcoming season. The franchise will work to feature both prominently while giving Davis as much support as possible. Davis and Mirotic already showed great synergy on the court together last season and at times scorched opposing defenses. Davis is a good shooter and should provide the spacing Randle needs to be aggressive on the move and in the post. Randle might also be able to handle the ball at the high post the way Cousins would at times, which can be difficult for opponents to stop. The biggest question left is how well the team will manage when Randle and Mirotic share the court without Davis anchoring the defense?
4. The Front Office
The Cousins situation was not a simple one. Once Cousins went down with the Achilles tear, it made re-signing him very difficult as he had been expecting a max offer. New Orleans’ front office deserves credit for not overpaying an injured Cousins on a long-term deal that could soon become an albatross.
The front office had been quite vocal and much more confident about keeping Rondo, however. To replace these two, the front office acquired Randle and Payton. Couple that with last season’s trade for Mirotic and it’s clear the team has done some quality retooling going back to last season. Should these new acquisitions work out, the franchise may succeed with their number one priority: keeping Davis happy as he heads toward free agency. Unfortunately, Randle, Payton and Mirotic can leave after this season as free agents, so the pressure will be back on the front office to make the appropriate moves to prove to Davis that he is in good hands with New Orleans.
– James Blancarte
The talent and leadership of Davis and Holiday.
Last year’s playoff run demonstrated that Davis and Holiday are more than able to run this team together. Rondo was a guiding presence as well, but this team knows that Davis and Holiday set the tempo and are the leaders of this squad.
Also, the frontcourt could be dynamic if Randle, Mirotic and Davis generate some chemistry together. Defense will be an issue but their collective offensive talent could be trouble for opponents.
– James Blancarte
Point guard and small forward.
As mentioned above, the Pelicans need Payton to fill the role Rondo occupied and take the next step in his career, especially since Holiday is the team’s best option at shooting guard. Jackson looms as a high upside player that might one day threaten Payton for the starting role but it’s unlikely he is ready to take on a major role. Jack should provide some stability but it’s not clear how much he has left in the tank. Simply put, Payton needs to step up in a big way this season.
While Moore has filled in admirably at the three, small forward is still not a position of strength for the team. There is talk of Mirotic possibly playing at the three as well. While this might work in limited situations, Mirotic lacks the footwork and mobility to effectively defend opposing small forwards consistently. Any future roster moves should revolve around these two positions.
– James Blancarte
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is the agent swap for Anthony Davis an ominous warning sign?
Davis recently parted ways with his prior longtime agent and speculation is that he will be signing with Klutch Sports. Yes, the same Klutch Sports associated with LeBron James. That’s more than enough information to make any Pelicans fan somewhat nervous. So far, officially, the franchise is not fretting about Davis wanting to move on and have put out the message they are not concerned. Looking at Davis’s contract status, it’s easy to see why. Davis remains under contract for at least two years with a third-year player option at nearly $29 million. In addition, the Pelicans can also offer a significantly larger contract than any other team. The franchise, as mentioned above, has made moves to stay competitive while bringing in younger talent that can grow on the same timeline as Davis and Holiday. Assuming those moves work out reasonably well, the Pelicans shouldn’t worry too much about Davis. But the Pelicans’ front office is on the clock and needs to show Davis that he’ll be able to compete at the highest levels if he stays in New Orleans long-term.
– James Blancarte
Indiana Pacers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview
The Indiana Pacers should be darling of the Central Division and easily next in line as an Eastern Conference contender The problem for the Pacers is they will face pressure to improve on last year, and that’s a tall order for such a young and unproven core. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Indiana Pacers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.
The Indiana Pacers quickly demanded everyone’s eyes last season. It was a fantastic season for what was thought to be the first year of a rebuilding process. A star was made, a coach’s message was delivered and a true team was born.
Now, coming into this specific core’s second season together, there is a chance to really put a stamp on the NBA. The Eastern Conference’s king is gone, meaning there’s a wide opening in the Central Division and more.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
I didn’t have high expectations for the Indiana Pacers entering the 2017-18 season, but Victor Oladipo and his supporting cast have my attention now. The Pacers added Tyreke Evans and drafted Aaron Holiday this offseason, which I think are solid moves. I also like the addition of Kyle O’Quinn, but he could take some of Domantas Sabonis’ minutes at center, which could hurt his production and the team overall. Doug McDermott could also help this team but the Pacers committed more years and money than I think was necessary. The Pacers now have a compelling mix of solid veterans and talented young players who can contribute now and continue developing moving forward. It’s not clear that the Pacers can take down the top Eastern Conference teams in a seven-game playoff series but I wouldn’t count them out either.
1st Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
After a 2017-18 season where they were almost certainly the league’s most pleasant surprise compared to preseason projections, the Indiana Pacers will try to avoid the trap of outsized expectations the following year – and they’re well-positioned to do so. They made smart but understated signings over the summer in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, guys who may not make them title contenders but will absolutely help in several areas. They’ll hope for another year of development out of big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, the former in particular. But especially given the still-low quality of the East’s playoff picture after teams like Boston and Toronto at the top, it feels like the only thing that could truly lead to a real regression for the Pacers is a big drop-off from Victor Oladipo, who became a full-blown star last season. If he holds his level and stays on the floor, it’s hard to imagine Indiana doing much worse than their fifth-place finish in the East last year.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
It’s really hard not to like the Pacers right now. They found the league’s newest superstar in Victor Oladipo by sheer luck. Their team chemistry is phenomenal. Best of all, their salary cap situation is fantastic, since the only players they’ve committed long-term money to are Oladipo and Doug McDermott. Remember, this team was within inches of beating LeBron in a playoff series. This year, they will have basically the same roster along with new names including McDermott, Tyreke Evans, and Kyle O’Quinn who should all fit in like a glove. If they just add a top-notch scorer to complement Oladipo, there’s no telling what the Pacers’ ceiling is.
1st Place – Central Division
– Matt John
The Pacers made a statement last year. They took the Eastern Conference champions to the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs. Everybody on the team bought into what Nate McMillan was selling. Victor Oladipo is going to work harder than anybody to get back to the postseason and exceed what they did in April. Myles Turner has the chance to blossom into one of the top young centers in the entire league if he can stay consistent. Thaddeus Young is back and continues to fly under the radar as one of the better forwards in the NBA. Darren Collison is a steady point guard who is the perfect veteran to take rookie Aaron Holiday under his wing. Tyreke Evans is coming off his best season since being a rookie in Sacramento. The frontcourt of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle O’Quinn in the second unit will benefit from Cory Joseph running the offense. Indiana has a big opportunity this season in what will be a fight for first place in the Central Division with the Bucks. It’s up for grabs.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
It hard not to like the Pacers. They are young, hungry and motivated. They play hard defensively, they have all kinds of pieces and all of them seem to be scratching the surface of their ultimate potential. Here is the problem: it’s one thing to be the underdog darling everyone loves, but that’s not who the Pacers will be coming into the season. There are expectations now. Victor Oladipo has to carry the team. Myles Turner has to live up to his off-season hype. These are not easy things for young teams to do. On the surface, the Pacers should win the Central Division. They should be a home court playoff team and they should be nipping at the heels of the East’s elite teams… They should be.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Victor Oladipo
The NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player is not satisfied. After falling mere minutes short of knocking off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the postseason, Oladipo sternly made it clear he absolutely hated the feeling of losing. Mind you, this was a series in which he averaged nearly 23 points, over eight rebounds and six assists per game. He put the onus on himself by playing over 37 minutes per game and attempting an average of 18 field goals in each contest.
And that only summarizes the seven games he played in the playoffs. In the regular season, Oladipo led the Pacers to a 48-34 record with his fearlessness and adapted to being the new face of a franchise. According to Cleaning The Glass, his usage increased by 11.6 percent from the previous year, accounting for 31 percent of the team’s offense. With the greater opportunity came better results for the Hoosier alum. He was more confident in his driving ability and his jump shot, making him on of the most dangerous threats in the whole league.
Just hours after the aforementioned defeat in the winner-take-all first-round Game 7 loss, Oladipo texted his trainer David Alexander: “When do we start? I’m ready to take it to another level.” With that kind of work ethic, it’d be foolish to expect anything else but greatness out of the 26-year-old in his second season with Indiana.
Top Defensive Player: Thaddeus Young
This could have been Oladipo for all intents and purposes. After all, he did lead the league in steal percentage (3.5) and steals per game (2.4) to go along with a net plus-14.4 rating. But we’re going to show some love to his teammate that is just as effective at a different positions.
Young is a versatile player. He can stick on to guards, he can go toe-to-toe with forwards and, if necessary, can muscle up and defend big men in the post. Height-wise he’s a little undersized for his position, but he makes up for it with his strength and wingspan. Having active hands is the most effective tool at his disposal.
When he was off the floor last season, the Pacers allowed 4.8 points per 100 possessions more than what they did when he was on. They also forced turnovers on 20.2 percent of their opponents’ possessions while he played, per CTG. As a veteran entering his 12th year, Young should be on tap for yet another solid season on the defensive end.
Top Playmaker: Tyreke Evans
Again, it’s difficult to not give the nod to Oladipo for nearly all of these categories, however his new teammate will give the Pacers an entirely different weapon than they’ve had. Evans is indefinitely one of the most underrated pickups of the summer and will fit in beautifully with this roster as a sizable upgrade at point forward.
We’ve addressed his abilities over the offseason a couple of times since the move, but to give you the cliffs notes—he’s an aggressive, multi-tooled player that can share the wealth and produce on his own simultaneously. As specified by CTG, Evans had assisted on 30.4 percent of his Memphis teammates’ made shots and had a usage of 30.7 percent. Those figures ranked among the best in the NBA.
Even citing the basic statistics, Evans averaged over 19 points, five rebounds and five assists per game as the leader of the Grizzlies last year. Forming a tandem with Oladipo in Indianapolis is going to be fun to watch. Having signed a one-year deal with this franchise, he’s betting on himself to earn a bigger payday next offseason from anybody—and it might just happen.
Top Clutch Player: Victor Oladipo
Some of the best moments of the 2017-18 season came from Oladipo’s fourth-quarter heroics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He had his signature celebration by saying, “I’m right here” while pointing down with two fingers. The emotions were high and made those plays memorable.
When the Pacers were in a close game, chances were he’d take it over. Whether it was a big steal, a shot to seal the game or a bucket to win it, he made it happen. It wasn’t only at home, either. He brought it on the road as well. Looking at NBA.com’s numbers, Oladipo had the highest net rating in clutch situations (plus-22.4) among those who played in at least 40 games in such scenarios.
To put that in perspective, only LeBron James had a higher offensive rating and only Anthony Davis had a better defensive rating in the clutch. That is elite company. Who knows if Oladipo can replicate what he did last season, but we do know that he will never shy away when the lights get brightest.
The Unheralded Player: Darren Collison
To be truthful, Indiana as a whole was underappreciated throughout the season. You could name almost anybody from the roster last season that’s on this current team and be right. For this purpose, though, we’re going to go with a wily veteran.
Back for his second stint with the Pacers, Collison flew under the radar. He led the NBA in three-point percentage (46.8 percent), recorded a career-high true shooting percentage (61 percent) and averaged over five assists and one steal per game.
With a star-in-the-making in Oladipo, an up-and-comer like Myles Turner and others drawing the attention of most, Collison just came in and did his job every night. He doesn’t turn the ball over, he doesn’t demand the basketball and he’s selfless. With another season of experience under his belt, expect the same type of contributions from the 31-year-old.
Best New Addition: Kyle O’Quinn
Evans is the clear-cut pick here, but we’ve already talked about him, so how about another choice? Losing tough-minded players like Lance Stephenson and Trevor Booker, general manager Kevin Pritchard hit the nail on the head by bringing one of the most underrated big men in the game to town.
O’Quinn is an immediate impact once he steps foot onto the hardwood. Alike to Enes Kanter and Marreese Speights’ styles on the offensive end, he scores in bunches. He hasn’t gotten the opportunity to show his skills often with his lack of playing time (18 minutes per game with New York Knicks last season was a career-high), but when he has, the veteran center has made the most of it.
He has an uncanny knack for hitting the glass, can put the ball in the basket and uses his size to his advantage on defense. The Pacers have solid depth in their frontcourt with O’Quinn.
– Spencer Davies
WHO WE LIKE
1. Nate McMillan
Aside from winning a championship, getting the most out of your players is a primary goal of a head coach in sports. McMillan not only did that, but he instilled a culture and a belief in a young group who was counted out before the season even started. Those same players are still a part of the core they’ve established in Indiana. Expect more player development and a higher confidence with a team who truly has bought into what McMillan is selling. If you thought year one was a smashing success, you haven’t seen anything yet.
2. Myles Turner
Coming into the 2017-18 campaign, many put their money on Turner becoming the new face of the Pacers. We all know that Oladipo took that title and ran with it, but it’s not to say that the 22-year-old didn’t have a good year. He had to adjust some, sharing time with Domantas Sabonis, Trevor Booker and Al Jefferson at times. He can be effective stretching the floor and is a shot blocker on the other end of the floor. This is a real opportunity for Turner to spread his wings this season. Remember, he’s only going into year four.
3. Domantas Sabonis
Similar to Oladipo, the once-misused Sabonis took plenty of advantage of an expanded role that he didn’t have with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He crashed the boards aggressively, he could be the ball handler and the runner in the pick-and-roll and he was a knock down shooter from the mid-range. He was actively involved in every set he was a part of. Entering his third season, his ascent is only in the beginning stages.
4. Bojan Bogdanovic
Another player on this team that shot above a 40 percent three-point clip, Bogdanovic knows exactly what he’s supposed to provide for this group. He doesn’t hesitate to take shots, but he won’t hog the rock, either. The Bosnian native is the ideal tertiary or fourth option on offense for Indiana. Considering how consistent he’s been for the past few years, you can likely predict the same thing to happen.
– Spencer Davies
These Pacers are confident and hungry…and they have an open window. The Eastern Conference is there for the taking. McMillan and company have all of the talent necessary to compete and beat every team in their conference. Statistically, they were physical on the ball and turned their opponents’ over often. They shot the ball extremely well from deep (37.6 percent) and overall (46.5 percent), in addition to making their free throws.
– Spencer Davies
Indiana has to go after rebounds with more conviction. They were a bottom four team in the league regarding their average 42 total rebounds per game. Preventing their opponents from doing so would help, too. Another focus should be on taking away chances on the perimeter, as their adversaries took 29 triples per game last year.
– Spencer Davies
THE BURNING QUESTION
How do the Pacers respond to expectations?
Based on this preview and all of the positive predictions coming with it, you’re probably thinking to yourself that Indiana is aiming for a 50-win type of season. With the grit and determination they showed last year, that’s exactly what we should peg them for. They should eclipse that mark for the first time in five seasons. But are we sure Indiana will be able to handle the spotlight for the entirety of an 82-game campaign? This time around, fans and pundits are going to be paying much closer attention to ensure the previous year wasn’t an anomaly. Chances are it won’t matter to the Pacers at first, but there are two directions teams go when it comes to constant pressure. We’ll see if the cream rises to the top or if it breaks this young group. I’ll go with the former.
– Spencer Davies