Details, focused work and a good vibe: Mike Weinar and the Pacers excited to get after it in summer league
Stanley is locked in, Bitadze sidelined to start and Duarte's sole focus is basketball. Plus, the early returns of the coaching staff have been favorable.
Mike Weinar is fired up and ready to go.
Following the first practice on Monday, after 6:00 p.m., he was full of energy as he discussed coming to Indiana with Rick Carlisle from Dallas, starting fresh and coaching the summer team.
But first, he had a bone to pick with a few others on the Zoom call.
“Hi everybody!,” he shouted.
“I can’t see everybody, where’s everybody’s (camera?)” he said, then proceeded to playfully call reporters out by name. “Are we showing pictures here, come on! If you’re looking at me, I gotta be able to see you.”
Weinar, 36, is coaching in summer league for the third time but he only just arrived in Indianapolis after 13 seasons in Dallas. Is he always like this, I wondered.
“We just got hired to a new situation that’s awesome, my family is excited, what’s there not to be excited about?” he replied.
No argument there.
“We’re so excited and I know coach is — obviously, I’ve been around him for 13-plus years — to be in this situation and it’s a return for him,” he continued. “All the staff that coach has put together, we’re all so thrilled to be here. The environment thus far has been nothing short of stupendous, in terms of the family atmosphere and working together.”
Weinar, along with other assistants Lloyd Pierce, Ronald Nored and Jenny Boucek, intend to inject life into this franchise and improve the culture while they set the foundation for everything they do.
So before they rolled out the balls and got to playing, the summer Pacers gathered in a room with the coaches, training staff and other team staffers for introductions. Chemistry on the court begins with chemistry and familiarity away from it.
“I would say more important than the Xs and Os, the things that are going on between the lines, we probably spent a good 45 minutes getting to know the group and trying to bring that group together in a cohesive fashion,” he said.
See Also: Summer Pacers coaching staff set
The 14-man roster is practicing this week and will head to Las Vegas this weekend, beginning their five-game slate Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately for Goga Bitadze — who wasn’t available for summer league his rookie season and the pandemic led to a cancellation last year — a sore back has kept him from playing the first two days.
Guard Keifer Sykes is not yet in camp. He’s playing on Boeheim’s Army in The Basketball Tournament, and they’re in the championship game Tuesday night vs Team 23. If they win, his share of the $1 million prize is $80,000.
Weinar is tasked with leading a group that is highlighted by numerous current Pacers, in addition to those trying to prove something to the front office, other teams and scouts from across the globe.
Bitadze, Oshae Brissett, Cassius Stanley, Amida Brimah, Duane Washington Jr., plus 2021 first-round picks Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson. This is a significant roster improvement from summer league 2019 — and it’s not close.
“This summer is a good way for me to get better by just getting my skills out there and work on the stuff I’ve been working on,” said Brissett, a gem the team added last spring due to injuries. “And just being in front of the coaching staff is the main reason. I haven’t got to sit down and talk or work out with them this whole summer so this will be a good chance to build a good relationship with them leading into the season.”
Stanley bounced between Indy and Los Angeles since the Pacers’ season ended on May 20. He focused on finding consistency with his jump shot, adding strength and being in a good headspace. He eliminated many of the distractions that are there when living in LA.
“There’s just a lot of hustle and bustle. I think I did a good job while being in LA of really locking in,” he said. “After experiencing a year of NBA, you can gear your training after knowing what it’s like. Now it’s about purposeful reps and training.”
The 2020 second-round pick played a dozen games with the Mad Ants in the G League bubble, then appeared in twice that with the Pacers. Game reps are everything to young players like Stanley and Bitadze, especially with a new coaching staff. The early returns have been favorable.
“They are very good at explaining things, very detail-oriented and they’re really good at communicating with us and being patient with us,” Stanley said. “… They’re taking their time with us, but still being hard on us and coaching us the way we need to be coached.
“Last year, everything was so expedited. The draft process was a long process, it was eight, nine months. Then the draft and boom,” he snaps his fingers, “six days later I’m in Indy, on the court in training camp. Then six days later it’s the preseason and five days later is the regular season. This time I really get a chance to touch up on my defense, touch up on my shooting, touch up on my shooting and I get those ample reps before regular training camp.
“This was a great day for myself and everyone else because I got to spend time with the coaches, I got to ask the questions I wanted to ask, I have a lot of time to figure things out as opposed to last year where it was just an accelerated process and I’d ask the vets.”
Duarte, meanwhile, is starting to get acclimated with his new home. He trained for the draft in Fort Lauderdale, attended the big night in New York City and is now in Indy, far away from Oregon — where he played college basketball the past two seasons. He’s happy to have the uncertainty of the draft behind him.
“Now I know what to focus on and what to work on,” he said. “Now I know what to expect and I like it.”
A couple of teammates have already reached out to the 24-year-old guard, including Justin Holiday, who is remodeling his home so he’s mostly in Indy all summer. “They told me that they’re here for me if I need anything. … I’m still learning their names, but I’m getting there.”
There’s a lot of positivity around the practice facility. A new coaching staff will do that. Two days into free agency, the Pacers re-signed one of their own in T.J. McConnell, then added toughness and defense with free-agent forward Torrey Craig.
Now, the Pacers front office is watching closely to see if there’s a player worth a camp invite, two-way contract or at the least, a role with their G League affiliate.
Coach Pierce is away from the team, over in Tokyo focused on helping Team USA win a gold medal. But that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about the Pacers too. He’s checking in with players, recently calling T.J. Warren to see how he’s doing with rehab and training in Los Angeles.
And back in Indy, the new coaching staff — Carlisle, Weinar and others — has already made a strong first impression.
“The energy is for sure different,” noted Brimah. “We still have some of the guys from last year. There are good vibes, everyone is positive. We have a Hall of Fame head coach and everybody’s really smart about the game. Whenever you need to get on the court, you can go to anyone whenever you want to and you always have someone available to learn from.”