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Wanamaker sticks, health updates, a new hire and trusting assistants — Takeaways from the Pacers' preseason
It all begins on Wednesday, Oct. 20 in Charlotte.
A Pacers preseason full of questions did resolve at least one concern: their third-string point guard spot. It’s a role most don’t spend much time thinking about until it’s necessary, but it was something head coach Rick Carlisle pondered for more than a month. Losing Edmond Sumner to a season-ending injury weeks before camp intensified those considerations.
“Who can play consistently, effectively in short minutes when needed?” Carlisle stressed. “And that’s a hard job.”
Keifer Sykes was signed in the offseason, a 27-year-old guard from Chicago who has spent the majority of his career, after starring at Green Bay, playing overseas. He was with the team for summer camp, he was with them at summer league. But it was clear shortly into the preseason that the Pacers weren’t satisfied.
Through the first three preseason games, he had only played in one of 12 quarters. At last, in the final practice game, he was unleashed and played a game-high 28 minutes
He finished 0 for 6 with three points, three rebounds and three assists.
By then, though, it was already Brad Wanamaker’s job. Like Sykes, he spent years playing overseas until someone took a chance on him. That individual was Brad Stevens in Boston. Seven years later.
“I think it’s an honest chance me being able to come in and compete for a roster spot,” Wanamaker said, and that’s why he signed with the Pacers. He had other options, mostly two-way deals. But he wanted a legitimate chance to compete for a spot.
As for Sykes, it’s not a good sign when a team signs a player at your position just one week into training camp. Several times Carlisle simply noted how Wanamaker’s an NBA player, a strong hint that he can play and will get that opportunity.
“It was as if he’s been here the whole time,” Carlisle said after Wanamaker’s first practice with the team on Oct. 7. “He really blended in.”
After the Pacers preseason finale against the Cavaliers, a 110-94 loss that featured mostly bench guys on both teams, the team waived Sykes, Nate Hinton and Terry Taylor.
That trimmed the roster to the maximum allowed: 17 players, including two two-way guys.
The Pacers preseason was less about the games and more about getting to know the new staff and learn the new system. Even though they haven’t gone into great depth offensively and with the playbook, it is ahead of their defense.
The players are mostly the same, but the emphasis and execution are much different. Beginning with playing 5-out, which takes Domantas Sabonis away from the basket and enables Myles Turner to actually contribute offensively.
Carlisle isn’t one to lean heavily on play calls and shouting them in from the sidelines. He demands a lot from his point guards and that’s why the third spot, behind Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. McConnell, is significant for him. He wants for there to be collaboration and for his guards to take charge.
However, he’s also good with any player bringing the ball off; that’s different from last season where they played at such a fast pace, but would throw the ball ahead to a guard.
The Pacers went 2-2 in the preseason, but that’s mostly meaningless. Even The Fieldhouse used the two home games as a practice round after renovations and (soon!) a return to full capacity. Attendance was limited to about 5,000 per game and tickets were only available to season-ticket holders, sources told Fieldhouse Files.
On the floor, the preseason was productive for the Pacers in terms of working through their concepts against competition and allowing for players to work themselves back into game shape. Carlisle wouldn’t say if he has a strict conditioning test like Pacers coaches in the past, but he felt good where they were when camp opened three weeks ago.
But … it didn’t help that Brogdon (shoulder), Caris LeVert (back), T.J. Warren (left foot), Jeremy Lamb (right wrist), Justin Holiday (left ankle) and Kelan Martin (left hamstring) all were unavailable for the final tune-up.
“Overall, we’re gonna need to play better,” Carlisle said after exhibition play. “The whole things is distorted by the fact we’re missing a lot of our main guys.”
Health (Bad) Luck Persists
I was really hoping to drop my title as Pacers injury beat reporter, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Team president Kevin Pritchard is an analytical and deep thinker. He’s likes studies, reviews of what works and what doesn’t, and why someone was successful. Each offseason, the front office reviews drafts, what they missed and such. So on media day, I asked Pritchard if they did any kind of study on health and how to break the current run of bad luck.
“We looked in a deep way that whole department and we feel like we’ve got the best in the business,” he said. “We look a hard look at preventative stuff. We pushed them and to try to do things better and maybe even a little bit different. So we’re trying some things and knock on wood, we hope to be healthy.”
They want to be careful about practice times and have looked into sleep studies. Almost three years ago, they brought in Dr. Chris Winter, a sleep medicine specialist, and I’m told it was very productive and that the takeaway was that the organization cared.
They’ve also made a new hire, bringing on Sarah Kessler as the performance data analyst — a newly-created position. Biomechanics are critical to a player performing at an elite level and avoiding injury. Small tweaks can make a big different.
Here’s how the injury report stacks up for Week 1:
Brogdon, signed a contract extension on Monday, suffered a minor shoulder injury after getting hit hard on a screen.
“I’m playing,” he said after Monday’s practice, leaving no doubt. “I’m all good… It bruised my (AC) joint really bad.”
Lamb and Holiday participated in most of practice the past two days and my sense is both will be available. Holiday has never missed a game since joining the Pacers, and he’s never missed a game due to injury.
LeVert is progressing and looks comfortable when playing 1-on-1, but the team ruled him out for the first week of the season. He’s participating in team drills, but has not been physical and taken contact for almost a month. He’ll continue to ramp up his workload.
Warren, meanwhile, is still weeks away. He had his regularly-scheduled scan of his left foot on Oct. 12 and “the news was positive,” Carlisle said. … There still is no determined timetable, but the hope is that we get more good news in another three weeks.”
So that’s at least two starters down for the time being. Plus, Martin is out for the first half dozen games or so. He’s dealing with a hamstring strain and those are tough, often reappearing if rushed back.
The good news for Martin is that he made the opening day roster, which includes a partial guarantee.
One of my biggest takeaways from the preseason was how much the assistant coaches were given a voice. Ordinarily, that may not be notable but it absolutely is after last season’s debacle.
I saw more individual coaching by the assistant coaches in the first quarter of their preseason finale than I did the entire season last year. Such as Lloyd Pierce yelling instructions at the defense, Jenny Boucek speaking to rookie Isaiah Jackson and Calbert Cheaney going over things with newcomer Keifer Sykes.
Larry Bird allowed for Carlisle to be the offensive guru and actively coach, so of course he’s passing it on. Every one of his coaches has head-coaching experience, too, which means a lot. And so does having a united coaching staff.
What the Numbers Say
They’ve got to do a better job of getting to the foul line; they need more than 20 attempts per game. And that should come with regular lineups and once key players return.
Rebounding has been a concern for at least a decade, an issue none of the previous coaches solved. But they’ve never been as awful as they were last season, finishing 30th.
They were sixth in blocks and 11th in assists, but again, I don’t think it’s too important to extrapolate too much from the preseason due to lineups, health and Carlisle easing into things with this group.
That said, their 3-point shooting was a huge concern in all four games. They finished 26th in 3-point percentage (30.3). Their attempts (38 per game) were way up, nearly inside the top 10 across the league. They averaged 34 3-point attempts per game last season.
Carlisle wants for everyone to be able to take things, Sabonis and others included. They’re playing a 5-out style that encourages it, and having consistent success hinges on success from range.
That’s where I’ll leave it before opening night.
The Pacers are on the road for their first two games, four of their first six and 12 of their first 19 games. It’s a brutal run that finally ends around Thanksgiving. Then they’re home for much of December.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me and following my coverage here. I appreciate you!