After a disappointing 2014-15 campaign that was derailed by injuries and saw the Pacers missed the playoffs, head coach Frank Vogel will have an abundance of work to do this summer in order to get the team competitive with the likes of Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta in the Eastern Conference.
When looking at the keys for making another playoff run next, season keeping Paul George and George Hill healthy is obviously going to be significant. However, the Pacers’ ability to stay competitive in the long run will ultimately come down to a much-needed change in style. Indiana simply needs to play faster, and the Pacers lack athleticism and quickness from their big men. Just look at the teams in the NBA Finals. Most of the time Golden State and Cleveland play with only one conventional low-post player. LeBron, Iman Shumpert, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes are all versatile players that can play more than one position.
The Pacers’ low post combination of Roy Hibbert and David West had its time, but the Pacers’ front court ended the season in the bottom half of the NBA in both scoring and rebounding. West averaged 11.7 points per game, which is down from 14.0 ppg last season and easily his lowest total since joining the Indiana. Now at 34 years of age, it will not be getting any better, and it would be wise for Larry Bird to part with him while he still has some value. Roy Hibbert is another player that Bird might want to consider moving if he wants this team to adapt to an up-tempo offense. Aside from his shot-blocking ability, there isn’t much more Hibbert offers compared to the average NBA center (and quite frankly makes significantly more coin than the average NBA center as well). Without further adieu, here are the Indiana Pacers’ most likely picks in the first round of this year’s draft:
Willie Cauley-Stein, C (Kentucky)
This seems a bit of a stretch. The Pacers would most likely have to trade up into the top ten to have a chance of acquiring him. For someone who is 6’ 11” and 240 pounds, Cauley-Stein is a phenomenal athlete. He has most of the qualities an NBA General Manager would want, as far as big men go, for today’s game. Cauley-Stein, is quick, agile, and explosive. In his junior year at the University of Kentucky, he cemented his status as one of the top defensive centers in this draft group. Not only does he excel at shot-blocking, with 3.6 per game average, but his versatility and quickness allow him to defend almost any position on the floor. On the other hand, his offensive game is limited, but he still does manage contribute a game average near double digits. In this writer’s opinion, Cauley-Stein would fit in well with the Pacers’ new up-tempo scheme, but the price will in all likelihood be too high for Indiana to jump up and pick him.
Myles Turner, C (Texas)
Based on the Pacers’ current needs and their draft position, Turner is the pick that makes the most sense, along with Arkansas’ Bobby Portis. As a lean seven-footer (measured in at 239 lbs.), Turner fits into the same mold as Cauley-Stein, but does not possess the same explosive athleticism. However, Turner is a much better offensive prospect than Cauley-Stein. He averaged just over 10 points per game and has a fantastic jump shot for a big man. His jump shot could allow him to be an integral part of a pick-and-roll scheme. With his 7’ 4” wingspan, Turner has the capability to score in a variety of ways. Defensively, Turner is one of the best prospects in this year’s draft. In his only season at Texas, Turner averaged 9.4 defensive rebounds per game and 4.7 blocks per game. He ranked in the top four nationally in both of these categories and it puts him on par with recent lottery picks, such as Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Karl Towns. However, Turner will have to continue to refine his offensive game by adding a consistent scoring touch from his left side and exploiting his size on the low block, rather than frequently settling for jump shots. Lastly, although Turner possesses a solid frame for an NBA big man, he will have to put on some muscle.
Bobby Portis, PF (Arkansas)
At 6’10” and 235 pounds, Portis is one of the more intriguing prospects in the draft class and has several qualities that could be exploited in Indiana’s new up-tempo offense. At Arkansas, Portis demonstrated many attributes similar to that of David West in his prime, such as energy, sound face-up game, and a strong mid-range jump shot. Ports possesses a reputation for being one of the top five offensive rebounders in the draft and with the Pacers finishing tied for 21st in offensive rebounding, Portis’ skill set would be an asset. One of his major strengths in his ability to score in a variety of ways. Not only does he have the ability to score from mid-range, but he also scores a significant number points down low, due to his quick release. Like Turner, Portis will need to fill out his frame because in the NBA he will primarily be stationed below the rim. In order to increase his versatility, Portis would do well to continue to expand the range of his jump shot, which does not currently include the three-pointer, and refine his post-up game. While not a great defensive prospect, Portis’ motor allows him to muster a defensive presence against both guards, as well as big men. Two holes in Portis’ game are his defensive rebounding and shot blocking. Portis does not have the upside of Turner or Cauley-Stein, but has the potential to fit nicely into an NBA rotation.
Stanley Johnson, SF (Arizona)
Paul George is an emerging superstar in the league, but it will take time for him to get back to his best, and the Pacers never adequately replaced Lance Stephenson. The lack of athleticism and scoring from the wing limited the Pacers’ offensive options significantly, especially with the injuries to George and the decline of David West. Johnson is one of the more explosive athletes on the wing for this year’s draft class. With his ability to score with limited spacing and create his own shot, Johnson possesses a similar playing style to that of Stephenson and could be a quality compliment to Paul George. Johnson’s speed, power, and ball-handling skills make him a constant threat on the break, which would make the Pacers’ up-tempo transition more manageable. Between his senior year of high school and freshman year at Arizona, he greatly improved his perimeter jump shot, making 37.% of his three-point attempts. However, he still needs to improve finishing near the basket. Johnson is also an intriguing prospect on the defensive side of the ball. His quickness and wingspan allow him guard both forward positions, as well as bigger guards. His lone year with the Wildcats demonstrated some of his sound defensive instincts with 2.1 steals per game. Johnson and Turner in all likelihood have the most upside in this group, but Johnson’s tendency to lack effort at times on defense could make Larry Bird apprehensive about selecting someone with attitude questions.