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Chris Duarte then Isaiah Jackson — Pacers get talent, fill needs and deal Aaron Holiday on draft night
There aren't any sure things, but Duarte is close. And Jackson's productivity hinges on opportunity and skill development.
Rick Carlisle has been the Pacers head coach for just a month, but positive changes have already been made. Beyond an improved, more experienced staff around him, Carlisle has seen where the league is, evaluated the roster and considered where they lag behind.
Versatility, athleticism and defense.
Leading up to the night, the Pacers had conversations with other teams about their first-round pick. General manager Chad Buchanan called it a very good class and they not only elected to hold on their to lottery pick, but they also added a second first-round pick later in the night.
The draft fell their way with three high-level players to choose from: Chris Duarte, Moses Moody, Corey Kispert. Shooters, scorers, players who could impact the team.
“We had the philosophy tonight to take a swing at the plate,” Buchanan said afterward. “We wanted to go for what we felt like was a pretty sure thing and we wanted to take a swing with the other one, a younger (player with) higher upside potential.”
When Adam Silver announced the pick at 13, their highest pick since taking Myles Turner 11th overall in 2015, Duarte rose to his feet and smiled wide as he buttoned his maroon sport coat. He kissed his girlfriend, Sylvia Velazquez, and then his infant son, Chris Jr. — who was born during his first year at the University of Oregon.
“He makes me work harder every day,” Duarte said.
Just watch this special moment below.
Duarte wasn’t like any of the guys who went in front of him. He’s 24, and some get held up with that fact. But there’s more to him and more to his story. He was born in the Dominican Republic, came to the United States in high school and spoke little English. He then went to junior college for two seasons at Northwest Florida State before playing two more years for the Oregon Ducks.
Last season with Oregon, he was their leader offensively (17.1 points per game) and defensively (1.9 steals) while shooting a team-high 81 percent at the line. He was voted the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and was an All-Defensive Team selection.
Versatility, check. Athleticism, check. Defense, check. He’s a player at least several other teams were after, most notably the Golden State Warriors.
“We wanted the best player available at 13,” Carlisle said. “We had a pecking order, it went almost exactly how we expected and we’re thrilled to get him. I do think he has the opportunity to crack our rotation. He plays like a pro, he plays at his pace. He has a great feel for change of pace, he never plays in a hurry.
“I think he’s a guy that Indiana Pacers basketball fans are going to fall in love with because of his passion, the kind of teammate he’s going to be and the ways he’s going to represent the city.
Turner, the longest-tenured player on the team, welcomed him to the team — as did Malcolm Brogdon.
There will be another time to dive deeper into his journey to the NBA. What you should know is that he’s resilient, well-traveled and has great perspective. That, along with his family, is what he thought about while on stage at the Barclays Center.
A short while later on a Zoom call, he was asked about his journey to this moment.
“I'm going to say this in Spanish so my mom can understand,” he responded. Then said the following (thanks to Google Translate):
“My mom, I love her a lot. She who always supported me, the good and the bad. My father who raised me, and my family who always stayed together, who have always supported me, supported me by my wife, my son, each one of that person who helped me.”
Duarte was part of a featured workout — one of nine the Pacers hosted — on July 21 that also included Kispert, who was selected by the Wizards at 16. The Warriors took Moody before then at 15.
“I knew I was going to go from 9 to 15,” said Duarate. “I went to Indiana and I had a great, great workout over there. I met with the people, with the front office, and we really connected well. I talked to the coach and I talked to everybody over there, and it was really, really good.
“When I left Indiana, I left confident in myself. So I knew if I was on the board by Indiana coming to pick, I knew that there was a high chance that they were going to take me.”
During his visit with teams, he made a point to show them “who Chris Duarte is,” he said. “They already know what I can do on the court.”
“I'm a guy that's not just a shooting guard. I'm a guy that can put the ball on the floor and make plays for his teammates, a great defender. I'm a winner, a great guy on and off the court. So that's the type of guy they're getting.
You can’t have enough shooting and he can score in a variety of ways. ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas called him “A poor man’s Klay Thompson. He’s an excellent shooter. He’s an outstanding shooter from deep, midrange, can get to the rim. He’s a really good player.”
The Pacers front office had been tracking Duarte for more than two years, and that’s key because due to the pandemic, scouts attended few college practices and games as a whole over the last 17 months.
“His shooting has improved, his ball-handling has improved and he may be 24 years old, but he really started playing basketball as a teenager so he’s relatively young to the game,” Buchanan said. “Our league today is about shooting and guys being able to create their own shot, create their own space. He’s got a beautiful NBA stroke and I think it’s going to translate from Day 1.”
Added Carlisle: “I view him as a playmaking, athletic 2 that’s highly skilled, a terrific shooter and ready to be an NBA defender. I also feel that with all the switching that is done in the NBA now, with his size and combativeness on the floor, that he’ll be able to battle big guys on the inside when there are switches and rolls.”
Duarte will arrive in Indianapolis on Friday and return to the practice facility where he left a mark just nine days ago.
But that’s not all…
Last year, the Pacers were without a pick in the first round. It belonged to Milwaukee. This year, they ended up with two in the top 22. It was just the second time in NBA franchise history, the first since 1983 (Steve Stipanovich, Mitchell Wiggins), where they selected two players in Round 1.
A half hour into the draft, the Pacers agreed to a deal with the Bucks — again! — to acquire the 31st overall pick. In exchange, the Pacers sent two 2021 second-round picks (2021) and two future seconds. Two hours later, they turned around and included those picks, Aaron Holiday, plus two future seconds in a deal with the Wizards for the 22nd pick, Isaiah Jackson.
“I feel like this year was one of the more active drafts as draft day unfolded with teams,” Buchanan said. “There was a lot of jockeying for picks. … I think there were more teams this year hunting picks than in the past, and we were aggressive trying to move up as high as we could get using what assets we had.”
The Pacers and Holiday will be better off going separate ways. Holiday never received consistent minutes and his contributions were sporadic. He viewed himself as a starter, where in reality he played behind T.J. McConnell, and his name was frequently discussed in trade conversations.
Indiana will always be special to him. It’s where he was drafted, met his wife and had a kid. And both he and Justin enjoyed playing together (for the first time) for two years, Now Aaron is due and eager for a fresh opportunity.
“Man this is bitter sweet,” Justin wrote on Instagram. “I thought we would play teammates forever BUT, this is what is best for you. Indiana isn’t the place for you and that is ok. You now have the opportunity to be you, hopefully play your game, and have a fresh start. I love you bro and I will miss you. God has a plan!”
It’s too early to judge whether the Pacers paid too much; Holiday and the 31st, which cost them picks 54 and 60, is absolutely worth it. So it all depends on Jackson’s growth and what those two future seconds become. (Usually, not much.)
Meanwhile, Jackson is on another pathway than Duarte. He’s just 19, was one-and-done at Kentucky with John Calipari, and the Pacers like what he could produce down the road. Skill development will be critical, but has been a weakness of the organization.
“I can't wait to get there to get to work,” Jackson said over a Zoom call from the draft, beaming with pride.
“I can't wait to start Summer League just to show everybody in the world what I've been working on this whole summer, what I been doing in workouts and stuff. I want to just help Indiana win.”
Jackson, a 6-foot-10 forward, averaged 8.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. He’s a skilled shot-blocker and active rebounder.
He worked out for the Pacers on July 7.
“He had a good workout here,” Carlisle remembers. It was his second day in Indy. “He’s got a really good feel for the game for a guy that really played center for Kentucky and is known as a great athlete. He’s got great speed up and down, but he passes and moves and sees things. And we really need to add athleticism to this roster. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he’ll be one of our top athletes.”
“This is an important pick for us because of his high level of athleticism, switchability, the versatility to guard all different positions on switches. Those skills are mammothly important in today’s game.”
Versatility, athleticism and defense. One immediate contributor and a player who will need a few years to round into form. The Pacers feel good about what they accomplished.
Next up: Free agency. The negotiating window opens at 6 p.m. ET on Aug. 2.