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Keifer Sykes returns to Pacers and prepares for NBA debut; Brad Wanamaker waived
With Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. McConnell both injured, the Pacers have been lacking at point guard.
The Pacers made a roster change on Monday, signing point guard Keifer Sykes. They’ve lost four of their last six games, three straight on the road and badly need a jolt to their backcourt.
Because the Pacers have a full roster, point guard Brad Wanamaker was waived. His contract for the season was set to become fully guaranteed if he was still on the roster by Jan. 10.
Sykes, 27, was at summer league and in training camp with the team. But he was replaced in camp by Wanamaker after just one week.
“We appreciate what Brad did here for (three) months,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “We wanted to reward Keifer for his hard work and how well he’s played in the G League. And look at something a little different on the roster. I’m happy for him. This is a great opportunity for him.
“He’s been an opportunist in his career and I know he’ll do well with us.”
Change seemed inevitable, especially as Malcolm Brogdon (sore right Achilles) and T.J. McConnell (right hand surgery) miss time due to injuries. Brogdon is managing the pain and is truly day-to-day. In his place, Caris LeVert has started the last two games as the primary ball handler.
“We’re just gonna have to hope that Mother Nature is kind on Malcolm’s situation,” Carlisle said, “and that in the next couple of days, he can feel better and be ready to get back.”
And yet with both of those players out, Wanamaker played just nine minutes in each of the last two games. In Sunday's 113-105 loss at Chicago, he finished with two points, one rebound, two turnovers and zero assists.
Carlisle turned to rookie guard Duane Washington Jr., who arrived in Chicago Sunday afternoon after both Brogdon and guard Jeremy Lamb (right wrist) were unable to play that night. Washington, who signed a two-way contract after going undrafted, was thrown out there in the second half — and he scored a layup, assisted on a bucket and got a steal within the first minute.
“I thought Washington did a nice job,” Carlisle said after Washington Jr. played 11 minutes. He had played a total of seven minutes in his other three appearances this season.
On Sunday night, after the loss, general manager Chad Buchanan called Sykes and gave him the good news. Buchanan maintains good communication with the players and he had checked in with Sykes recently after teammate Terry Taylor was signed to a two-way deal, replacing DeJon Jarreau. Forward Justin Anderson signed a 10-day with the Cavaliers soon after.
After he got the call, Sykes told his mom. “She was ready to scream,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘Don’t scream yet, I got to pass the COVID test.’ I’m just happy that she’ll be happy.”
By Monday morning at 4 a.m. local time, he left Chicago and was driving to Indy. He tested negative and then met with Carlisle. “I was definitely nervous about that with all of it going around in Chicago,” he said of the COVID testing. “I think every one of the (Bulls) members got it and it’s going around pretty heavily in my city. So I wanted to get out early and I got through this practice; now I can go take a nap.”
The Pacers signed Sykes to a two-year, non-guaranteed deal that includes a team option for the 2022-23 season, a league source told Fieldhouse Files.
He has played well in the G League, averaging 16.3 points and a league-leading 8.0 assists per game. And he was eager for a call-up as he saw many of his peers depart the G League.
“It’s definitely been a weight on my shoulders,” he said. “People don’t really know how stressful it’s been playing abroad, turning down money to get in this position. To see guys get called up on the Mad Ants team and I’m just always sacrificing. … I’m just happy it paid off. I want to make it last, most importantly.”
The 5-foot-11 point guard turns 28 on Thursday. That’s also his jersey number. And then on New Year’s Eve, the Pacers play the Bulls — his hometown team.
“He’s done a good job with the Mad Ants of mixing a scoring presence with a play-making presence,” said Carlisle. “And having a good feel for the balance of both. We feel like that was a big part of the decision to bring him on board.
“We need basketball players. Keifer’s an energetic guy, he’ll play a 94-foot game, both offensively and defensively. He’s gonna go hard and he’s a guy that has a real feeling for what this kind of moment can be about. He’s a total team guy too. All that stuff is important.”
Sykes has played in China, the EuroLeague and NBL in Australia. He’s done it all, except play in an NBA game. This will be his first shot. “The next goal on my list,” he said before summer league.
The Chicago native impressed the Pacers in camp with his attitude and shooting in practice. Remember that bell Carlisle had installed, the one players rang if they hit at least 20 of 25 from beyond the arc?
Sykes rang that in each of his final 10 days with the team. He even came in on an off day to get shots up — and he rang the bell then too.
“It’s always about finding the right opportunity and it’s always about finding the right time,” Sykes said before summer league. “I just think over the years it has always been difficult. It’s really hard to get on a roster; it’s really hard to get on summer league; it’s really hard to get in training camp and be considered a free agent once you play abroad. I’ve just been continuing to work my way up, putting myself in position to play well and win, and play at the highest levels.”
The G League paused its season until Jan. 5 to safety return to markets after Christmas and due to significant call-ups impacting rosters as NBA teams need at least eight players for games to go on. So the Mad Ants’ next four games are off, including two scheduled for this week at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Mad Ants coach Tom Hankins was at Pacers practice. And afterward, Pacers assistant coach Jenny Boucek spent about a half hour with Sykes going over the offensive playbook with Washington Jr., Taylor, Isaiah Jackson, and basketball intern Obim Okeke, who played at Baylor.
“My son is here, my family is here and I’ve been putting in work,” Sykes said. “I’ve been seeing guys get called up and God willing, I would’ve taken anything. But I definitely wanted it to be here.”
The Pacers (14-20) will practice again on Tuesday before hosting the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday night — for Star Wars night.