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Charlotte Hornets 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Charlotte Hornets are something of an enigma. They have the right mix of veterans to be really good, but it might be the young guys that make them worth watching. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Charlotte Hornets in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Languishing in the middle of the pack is known as being in the NBA’s version of purgatory. The Charlotte Hornets have been residents here since 2014. Being just good enough to remain in the playoff chase the past five seasons, but nowhere strong enough to seriously contend among the league’s elite.

Back to back 36-46 finishes led to the ouster of veteran head coach Steve Clifford during the offseason. The team also offloaded future Hall of Fame center Dwight Howard. Enter new general manager Mitch Kupchak and new head coach James Borrego with a mission to aid Charlotte’s ascent up the league’s hierarchy.

The Hornets will enter the 2018-19 season with major contributors up and down the roster that could hit free agency next summer. Adding this to a new front office regime while also incorporating a new coach could lead to some early turbulence and uncertainty.

Charlotte has an interesting mix of young prospects, a stockpile of draft picks and could have up to $51 million in cap space next summer. There are three ways to improve in the NBA – the draft, trade market and free agency. The Hornets are strongly positioned to take advantage in all three areas and could finally free itself from the grips of purgatory.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

There are specific things to like about the Hornets. Kemba Walker has turned himself into a lethal point guard despite being undersized. Malik Monk and Miles Bridges have upside and could become foundational players for Charlotte. They have experienced veterans who should make the team competitive on just about any given night in the Eastern Conference. But the ceiling is very limited for this roster. It’s hard to imagine Charlotte making it past the Celtics, Raptors or 76ers in the postseason and there isn’t much reason to believe this team can make any deals that substantively change this dynamic. This is an expensive roster that doesn’t have the upside to justify such a hefty price tag. This may be the season where the front office decides to start selling off its top players, even Kemba Walker, for prospects and other assets. To be clear, this team could easily be in the playoff mix this season, but making it past the first round seems less than likely.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Will we look back on the summer of 2018 as the one that signaled a changing of the tides in Charlotte? The outlines are certainly there, but there are also some contrary signs. The Hornets found new names for both their coach and GM positions, bringing in James Borrego and Mitch Kupchak, respectively. They became the latest team to move on from Dwight Howard. They also nabbed Miles Bridges in a draft day trade with the Clippers, plus are very high on early second-rounder Devonte’ Graham as a future piece. By the same token, the Hornets still have several pricey veterans on the roster, plus signed Tony Parker as a new backup point guard. All of which leads us to the elephant in the room, actually one of the team’s smallest players: Star Kemba Walker. Walker is in the final year of his contract before hitting the unrestricted market in 2019, and whether the Hornets will be able – or even willing, for that matter – to lock him up at his market price is the biggest question in Charlotte. If they get the idea the answer is no, will they look to shop Walker before the trade deadline? All eyes are on Kemba for a franchise that tops out as a middling playoff contender in the East.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Ben Dowsett

In his first year as a head coach in Charlotte, James Borrego has an opportunity to take the Hornets to the next level, which they haven’t been able to reach in the past two years. There is always playoff potential when you’re in the Eastern Conference, and with Kemba Walker entering the prime of his career, it’s more than plausible for it to happen this season. Promising upstart Willy Hernangomez is poised to have a breakout year, which will push Cody Zeller to step it up in order to keep his starting spot. Sophomore guard Malik Monk could be in for a big season himself. Veterans like Nic Batum and newcomer Tony Parker will help in the locker room. It’s only year one, but they’ll be hovering around the postseason race.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

Here’s how to describe the Hornets: To determine whether a team is good, all they have to do is compare themselves to Charlotte. If the team is better than the Hornets, then that team is good. If it’s worse, then that team is bad. That’s what the Charlotte Hornets are. The living embodiment of mediocre. Even if they wind up snagging a playoff spot, what would be the point? Outside of Kemba Walker, the roster is nothing special. The best-case scenario for them would be a competitive first-round series, and that’s if everything goes their way. Even with their coaching change and some intriguing young talent, don’t expect too much from Charlotte this season.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Matt John

The Hornets are middling at best. That’s tough to say because the hiring of James Borrego was solid. They have some promising young guys, and there is enough talent on the roster to think they are good enough for the post-season in the East. The problem is there isn’t anything about the Hornets worth believing in. You want to believe Kemba Walker will break out (again), but historically he’s been injured. You want to believe the guys they invested huge contracts into are going to bounce back, but they too have either been injured or not playing to the level that got them paid. The Hornets are a mess, and it’s hard to put a lot of stock into a team that’s a mess. Maybe they bounce back … Maybe.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker

First things first, Walker is the Hornets’ career leading scorer. The 28-year-old guard has missed only six games the past three seasons, has recorded back to back All-Star appearances and notched three consecutive campaigns averaging more than 20 points per contest. Walker, an unrestricted free agent next summer, is entering his prime and will be in high demand if he hits the open market. Trade rumors have been swirling around Walker for a year and it remains to be seen if the former UCONN product is truly in Charlotte’s long-term plans under Kupchak.

Walker will enter the season as Charlotte’s number one offensive option. Walker shot 31 percent from three-point range as a rookie in 2012, but hasn’t shot below 37 percent from distance the last three seasons, which is a testament of his offensive growth. The Hornets’ next leading returning scorer from last season behind Walker is guard Jeremy Lamb and he averaged nine points less in 2018. It’s safe to say as Walker goes, the Hornets go offensively.

Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

While their respective offensive games leave much to be desired, Kidd-Gilchrist and veteran center Bismack Biyombo have the raw talent to be defensive stalwarts. However, Kidd-Gilchrist ranked 32nd among small forwards last season in defensive real plus minus. Biyombo didn’t fare much better, landing at 73rd overall for qualifying centers.

Still, Kidd-Gilchrist is a very reliable wing defender with the ability to guard at least three positions. To put it simply, defense is Kidd-Gilchrist’s calling card and it remains his primary role with the Hornets.

Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum

Batum remains one of the most versatile players in the league. The 10-year veteran consistently contributes all over the nightly box score, but his ability to facilitate Charlotte’s offense also allows backcourt mate Kemba Walker to shoulder a heavier scoring workload. Heading into the season, Batum currently sits 10th all-time on the Hornets’ career assist list.

There has been talk of Batum moving back to his natural small forward position under Borrego and this could impact his playmaking, so it is a situation to watch heading into training camp.

Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker

When the lead is five points or less with less than five minutes to go in regulation, the ball will be in the hands of Walker. Period. Walker averaged 3.4 points in these situations last season. The next returning Hornets player, Nicolas Batum, averaged 1.2 points.

The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams

Williams will never live up to the expectations of being the guy selected before point guard Chris Paul in the 2005 draft, but Williams has become one of the most consistent players in the league during his tenure. With Williams you know exactly what you’re going to get; a pinch of double-digit scoring, solid rebounding for his position and decent defense. In two of the past three years, Williams has posted 40 percent shooting seasons from three-point range, further showing his versatility. This season, assuming good health, Williams should surpass the 1,000 regular season games played mark and the 10,000 career points milestone.

Best New Addition: Tony Parker

Finals MVP. Four-time NBA champ. Six-time All-Star. Four-time All-NBA performer. What’s not to like about the signing of veteran guard Tony Parker this past summer? Sure, the Hornets aren’t getting a prime Parker and he has showed signs of aging in recent years. But Parker is very familiar with Borrego from their time in San Antonio together, which is exactly the type of safety blanket a new coach could use while getting fully acclimated.

With Walker’s impending free agency, Parker could also be used as a stopgap option if Charlotte elects to trade him before the deadline or loses him in free agency next summer. Unlike some other aging future Hall of Fame talents around the league, Parker has seemingly embraced his role as the old graybeard.

– Lang Greene

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mitch Kupchak and James Borrego

The Hornets have received criticism over the years for playing it safe when it comes to front office and head coaching hires. But Charlotte swung for the fences with their latest additions. Kupchak won four titles as a general manager for the Los Angeles Lakers and three titles as a player. Borrego broke the barrier by becoming the first Hispanic full-time head coach. Borrego served on the San Antonio Spurs’ staff the past three seasons but also was an interim head coach for the Orlando Magic in 2015. Both hires signal a new direction for Charlotte and it will be interesting to see if the franchise elects for a true rebuilding project or more of a retooling effort on the fly.

2. Stockpile of second round draft picks

The Hornets will enter the season with a payroll exceeding $120 million. With the team up against the salary cap, Charlotte has been stockpiling additional draft picks for leverage to acquire new talent. The team has six second round picks through 2021 and the needed flexibility to acquire younger and less expensive talent until the cap situation improves.

3. Malik Monk

Monk averaged 19.8 points per game in his lone collegiate season at the University of Kentucky. The guard, only 20 years old, had an uneven rookie campaign but showed flashes of potential. Monk’s upside is the most intriguing. In the Hornet’s final five games of the season, Monk averaged over 20 points per game. During this stretch, the guard shot 48 percent from the field. For the entire season, Monk’s field goal accuracy was just 36 percent. Monk has the potential to become a high volume scorer in the league. With incumbent starting shooting guard Jeremy Lamb headed to free agency next summer, Monk may have more runway this season to perform.

4. Miles Bridges

In a draft night trade, the Hornets acquired Bridges from the Los Angeles Clippers. In recent years, Charlotte’s draft history has been questionable. While Monk shows upside, forward Frank Kaminsky hasn’t panned out as the team once hoped.

Bridges holds the distinction of being one of the most explosive athletes from this year’s draft class and he has shown the ability to score, facilitate and rebound. With Lamb on his way to free agency and Batum’s past health issues, Bridges could be in line to receive extended minutes at some point during his rookie campaign.

– Lang Greene

STRENGTHS

Point guard and the wing positions are areas of strength for the Hornets. Walker is poised for another 20-plus point per game campaign and his third consecutive All-Star appearance. The addition of Parker gives the team much needed depth behind Walker and is an immediate upgrade over the departed Michael Carter-Williams. The trio of Batum, Bridges and Kidd-Gilchrist should also be productive and provides head coach Borrego flexibility in his nightly lineups.

– Lang Greene

WEAKNESSES

Interior play and rebounding will be a struggle for Charlotte this season. Say what you will about departed center Dwight Howard, but he has always been a glass cleaner – averaging 12.5 in his lone season with the Hornets. The next returning rebounder in Charlotte is Cody Zeller who pulled down 5.4 boards per game in 2018. The next three rebounders were Willy Hernangomez, Batum and Williams. Kaminsky averaged 24 minutes per game and pulled down just 3.6 per outing.

The hope here may be to leverage the newly acquired Biyombo to assist on the boards, but offensively the team will struggle at times with him on the floor compared to Zeller. Biyombo has never averaged more than six points per game in his seven year career.

– Lang Greene

THE BURNING QUESTION

Are the Hornets rebuilding or retooling?

The Kupchak-Borrego era begins. But are the Hornets rebuilding or retooling? The answer to this question remains unclear heading into training camp. The team has enough talent to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, but they aren’t contenders by any stretch of the imagination.

The next few months will shed light on what direction Kupchak envisions for the franchise. Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. The team could potentially lose their all-time leading scorer for nothing in return at the end of the season. This makes the prospect of a trade before the deadline feasible – at the very least.

Outside of Walker there are other free agency concerns brewing. Biyombo ($17M), Williams ($15M) and Kidd-Gilchrist ($13M) all have player options for the 2019-20 season and could become free agents. Parker, Hernangomez and Dwayne Bacon all have non-guaranteed deals for next season while Kaminsky could enter restricted free agency.

Charlotte has the luxury to pursue either path, but the team is up against the salary cap and another middle of the pack finish will result in another late lottery pick.

– Lang Greene

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NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio

Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.

Chad Smith

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Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.

Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.

Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu GinĂłbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.

It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.

The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.

And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.

Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.

As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.

Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.

While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.

Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.

White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.

Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.

The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.

Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.

Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.

Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.

And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.

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Will The Pacers’ Change In Style Pay Off?

With deals and changes abound, the Indiana Pacers’ wild rebuild marks them as a franchise on the rise.

Ariel Pacheco

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After coming off four consecutive first-round exits under head coach Nate McMillan, the Indiana Pacers decided it was time to make a change. Instead of dismantling or retooling a core that had been acquired mostly by opportunistic deals, general manager Kevin Pritchard went in a different direction and, early into the season, it seems like it has paid off. 

Under Nate Bjorkgren, the Indiana Pacers have dramatically transformed their style of play. Many of the mid-range jumpers they took last season have turned into shots at the rim or three-pointers instead. There are a lot more dribble hand-offs, staggered screens and an overall sense of purpose in every action on offense. The offense has operated like a well-oiled machine, largely with Domantas Sabonis acting as the main engine. 

This has led to Sabonis’ play and potential being unlocked. Ultimately, Sabonis is well on his way to another All-Star appearance, averaging career highs in points (21.7 PPG), rebounds (12.8 RPG) and assists (5.8 APG). While his usage is similar to last season’s, the way he’s being utilized is very different. With McMillan, Sabonis was mostly used as a post-up big who also scored a lot as a roll-man. Bjorkgren is giving him those same touches but he has also a lot more free reign to operate and make decisions.

Sabonis is now attacking teams in semi-transition after defensive rebounds. Basically, all the offensive actions are run through him, which have accentuated his passing ability. His range has also improved, and he’s turned his 20-foot jumpers into three-point attempts. Moreover, it’s a huge part of the reason why the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating (111.3). Sabonis is a walking mismatch who can play almost any role in an offense and Bjorkgren has let him roam free.

Better, Malcolm Brogdon is also playing at an All-Star level. He’s averaging 22.2 points per game along with 7.5 assists per game, both career highs. Brogdon’s shooting 43.3 percent from three and is another player who’s benefitted from Bjorkgren’s offense. Brogdon’s ability to shoot threes while dribbling off screens and the ability to attack out of dribble hand-offs has allowed for the Pacers’ offense to be far less predictable than in the past. 

Myles Turner is probably in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year so far. He’s averaging an insane 4.2 blocks per game, practically shutting down the paint for opposing offenses. Turner has been relegated to a mostly spot-up role in the offense, but those mid-range jumpers from last season have become three-pointers to this point. While he has struggled to hit three’s so far, his shot quality is considerably better. However, his value comes on the defensive end, where he is anchoring the 9th best team in defensive rating at 107.8. Opponents are shooting just 54.4 percent in the restricted area when Turner is in. Although his recent hand fracture will surely complicate proceedings there and the Pacers will miss him sorely.

The Indiana bench has also provided some good minutes. Doug McDermott is effective not only with his jumper but with his underrated cutting ability. Justin Holiday has been solid and is shooting 43.1 percent from three. His brother, Aaron Holiday, has had his ups and downs but built himself into a solid rotation player. Naturally, TJ McConnell has been his usual pesky-self. 

There’s still plenty of room for upside as the Pacers have dealt with injuries to some key guys. TJ Warren, last season’s bubble breakout star, is out indefinitely after having foot surgery. Jeremy Lamb tore his ACL last season, is close to returning but hasn’t played a single minute this season. The Pacers’ newest addition, Caris LeVert, will be out indefinitely after a small mass was found on his kidney. All three are proven guys who can really help Indiana take the next step.

Sadly, it gets more difficult with Turner’s injury too.

Interestingly enough, many of the players have seemingly gone out of their way to not only express their appreciation for Bjorkgren’s coaching – while also knowing the difference compared to years past. Brogdon, Sabonis and McDermott have all seemingly made it clear that this style of play is preferable to last year under McMillan. 

“In seasons past, the offense didn’t call for me to do those certain things,” Turner said “But coach has a lot of confidence in me… I’ve just had the chance to show it this season.” 

Questions about the Turner-Sabonis pairing now seem to have gone away. It’s no secret that Turner oft mentioned in trade rumors the entire offseason in large part due to his perceived fit with Sabonis. Bjorkgren has found a way to maximize both player’s skillsets while also keeping them happy with their roles. Bigger, Pacers’ lineups with Sabonis and Turner have a 2.5 net rating. 

The improved play of the Indiana stars is something that can be attributed to Bjorkgren’s shift in their style of play. It’s what Pritchard was hoping for when he made the coaching change. The Pacers made a calculated gamble when they fired a proven coach with this roster in Nate McMillan and now the Pacers are 8-5 with room to grow. If Sabonis and Brogdon can continue this level of play as guys come back healthy, the Pacers will be a team no one wants to face come playoff time.

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NBA

Myles Turner Making A Difference With Defense

The Indiana Pacers have always been a good defensive team, but Myles Turner is on a mission this season to take them to an elite level. Chad Smith takes a closer look at the impact Turner has had as the anchor of Indiana’s defense.

Chad Smith

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This week has been a roller coaster ride for the Indiana Pacers, who are returning home after splitting a four-game West Coast trip. It was supposed to be five games but their matchup with the Phoenix Suns was postponed due to contract tracing within the Suns organization. On their day off between games, Indiana traded away All-Star guard Victor Oladipo as part of a four-team blockbuster that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

What they got in return seemed too good to be true, until it was. Acquiring a young and talented player like Caris LeVert, whom they originally drafted and subsequently traded to Brooklyn, took many people by surprise. With Oladipo not planning to return next season, it was a brilliant move by Indiana, especially when you consider LeVert’s upside and his team-friendly contract. On top of that, the Pacers also received a 2024 second-round pick (via Cleveland), a 2023 second-round pick (via Houston) and $2.6 million from the Nets.

Unfortunately, the Pacers’ medical staff discovered what the team described as “a small mass” on LeVert’s left kidney while undergoing a routine physical. The good news for LeVert is that this was found and he can begin whatever treatment is necessary for him to return to playing basketball at some point. For now, though, the Pacers will employ the “next man up” philosophy. The team has already lost TJ Warren indefinitely and have been without Jeremy Lamb all season. Now Myles Turner may soon join them on the sidelines.

Myles missed his first game of the season on Sunday due to an injury on his right hand. He met with team doctors on Monday and early reports are that he has a slight fracture in his right hand and will be re-evaluated in the coming days.

In that game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the absence of Turner was glaring. Even without Serge Ibaka and Lou Williams, the Clippers shot 55 percent from the floor and 49 percent from behind the arc. Nearly half of their 129 points came in the paint as they destroyed the Pacers by 33 points, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Indiana had just two blocks in the game and even those came in garbage time.

When Nate Bjorkgren was named the Pacers’ new head coach back in October, many around the league wondered what that meant for Turner. Would the experiment next to Domantas Sabonis come to an end? Were his days as a Pacer now numbered? A rumored sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward never came to fruition, but that ended up working out well for both Myles and the Pacers organization.

When the Pacers selected Turner with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the opinions on him were split. While many saw the raw, unlocked potential that he possessed, others were skeptical of his lack of lateral movement and, of all things, the way that he ran up and down the court.

Draft evaluators were concerned that his awkward running style would lead to long-term effects on his knees. In a breakdown by Draft Express, they noted that “His awkward running style might not change anytime soon. He noticeably lumbers getting up and down the floor, and only made five field goals all season in transition situations.” That was in reference to his Freshman season at Texas, where Turner averaged 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 46 percent from the field.

Fast forward to 2021, where Turner is having arguably the best season of his career. While he is scoring at the same level, he has improved several other facets of his game. He is shooting the ball with more confidence, attacking the basket more off the dribble and even hitting the offensive glass. While his three-point shooting is down largely due to more attempts, his work in the paint has him shooting a career-high 63 percent from inside the arc.

Obviously, the blocks are what really pops out, as he leads the league at 4.2 per game. That is staggering when you consider the next best is Rudy Gobert at 2.7 per game, while Chris Boucher is the only other player averaging at least two per game. By comparison, when Turner led the league in blocks during the 2018-19 season his average was 2.7 per game. Entering Sunday’s slate of games, Turner was actually averaging more blocks per game than six teams.

Following a game earlier this season, Turner elaborated on his goals for the year: “It’s definitely been a goal for myself to start the season off strong on the defensive end. I’ve gotten the respect as a shot-blocker in this league. I know it’s something that I do. But I’m trying to take that to the next step.”

“I’ve already proven that you can lead the league in blocks and not make an All-Defensive team or not be Defensive Player of the Year. So it’s time to do more and assert myself more on that end.”

Turner has had four games this season with at least five blocks, including two games where he stuffed the opponent eight times. His defensive prowess is much more than just blocking shots though; he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game so far and has had seven games in which he recorded at least two steals.

Indiana’s offense will continue to run through Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, who are both playing at an All-Star level this season. But, as much attention as those two have gotten, it’s the defense that has really shaped this Pacers team.

The loss of assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke was a concern before the season began. The truth is the Pacers are much more aggressive on defense now, playing further up on the perimeter. This is the same scheme that Bjorkgren and Nick Nurse incorporated with the Toronto Raptors. Ibaka played that role last year and this season it’s been Boucher, who currently ranks third in the league in blocks behind Turner and Gobert.

With Sabonis often guarding the opponent’s biggest/strongest player, Turner is left to defend more on the perimeter. This is a real challenge given his disadvantage against smaller, quicker wing players. To his credit though, Turner has stayed in front of them. And that is what makes his shot-blocking even more impressive; every game and on multiple possessions, Turner is essentially guarding two players by himself for seconds at a time.

Since Turner’s rookie season, only three players have blocked more shots than he has. He ranks 15th in the league in deflections and is top-five in terms of defensive field goal percentage at the rim. Indiana’s defensive rating is a 107.7 when he is on the court and a 111.3 when he is on the bench. These are the signs of a truly elite defensive player.

And, with Turner as their defensive anchor, the Pacers have a scary three-headed monster that could ultimately be a nightmare for the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season.

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