The Pacers enter the offseason with much of their core set to return. Thaddeus Young’s player option is the only major uncertainty — if he does test the free agency waters, the Pacers will need to replace his minutes at the 4 spot. And unless TJ Leaf makes an earth-shattering leap this offseason, they will need to add a 4 via trade or free agency, as their guy probably won’t be there at the 23rd pick (except for maybe one player — more on that later).
And so the Pacers’ needs remain much the same: a long-term complementary ball-handler, 3-point shooting and wing defenders. Darren Collison had a career year in 2017-2018 leading the league in 3-point percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, but he is not the Pacers’ long-term answer at point guard and would probably better serve the team leading the second unit. Fortunately for the Pacers, there are a few players projected to go in the mid-to-late first round who have point guard-of-the-future potential.
Okobo offers a fairly advanced arsenal of scoring weapons for a 20 year-old kid. In the 2017-2018 season, he led Pau-Lacq-Orthez of the French Pro A league in scoring with 12.9 ppg over 26.3 mpg using hesitations, spins, and euro steps — he changes pace and direction fluidly, and can shoot off the dribble as well as spot up. He looks good operating out of the pick ‘n’ roll, and can get to the rim and finish with either hand. In a French-league tournament game, his quick (but low) release from NBA range was on display — and he packaged it with jab steps and step-backs on his way to 44 points in a loss to Monaco. His offensive skill set should offer more scoring than the Pacers now have at point guard, though he wouldn’t bring the same level of playmaking — he plays like a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. Okobo’s defense is an unknown variable, but he’s a talented youngster who could develop into an All-Star caliber player in a few years.
Darren Collison 2.0. A strong motor gives him more defensive upside, and he has a quicker release so he could theoretically become a better jump shooter than Collison in the NBA. Holiday shot 42.9% from 3 on 6.2 attempts his Junior year, and shot above 41% in each of his 3 years at UCLA, which is promising. But his size and athleticism limit his upside.
The Pacers could plug the National Player of the Year into the lineup immediately at 25 minutes per game and he would give them solid production. Brunson can score from three levels using excellent footwork and body control, and offers good vision. He can post up, a la Mark Jackson, which would theoretically work well next to a floor-spacing big like Myles Turner. He is also active on defense and on the boards despite his athletic limitations.
The questions with these players are 1) is their game developed enough to contribute immediately, i.e. could the Pacers decline Collison’s option for 2018-2019 and not miss a beat? And 2) does this player have a high enough ceiling to earn a first round selection over, say, a wing who can shoot and defend? With Jalen Brunson, I think the answer to the first question is yes, but his ceiling looks limited due to his size and athleticism. Likewise with Aaron Holiday. Elie Okobo is the opposite: his offensive game shows flashes of James Harden (the comparison is maybe a stretch — but let’s just say that if I had to wager I would bet on Harden as his favorite player), but would he be able to contribute in year 1, when the team is (presumably) trying to contend?
Given these concerns, the Pacers may want to consider a proven shooter from the wing, and/or someone who can defend at the wing. If the ultimate goal is to play Turner and Sabonis together, as General Manager Kevin Pritchard has indicated, the Pacers would need guys at 1-3 who can defend — who can get through screens and rotate/switch at will. With that in mind, here are the top players the Pacers will be considering:
Bates-Diop looks like a solid pro-ready option. He is a guy who can play at each level of the floor: he looks comfortable with his back to the basket and is capable of taking slower defenders off the dribble or pulling up from anywhere on the court. At 6’9”, he can play at the 3 and has the size to fill in at the 4-spot and replace some of Thad’s minutes along with TJ Leaf, though he must get stronger. Bates-Diop and Leaf would bring the floor-spacing to the position that General Manager Kevin Pritchard has been looking for, though both will struggle to guard some of the bigger forwards, which is why strengthening defense on the wing / backcourt is vital. He was a very effective scorer in college, but his slightly unorthodox and off-balance shot may not translate seamlessly to the pro game.
The Pacers were 26th in 3-point attempts in 2017-2018 due to a lack of pure shooters on the team. The Junior out of Villanova, who shot 40.1% from 3 on 5.3 attempts per game in 2017-2018, would offer that. Standing a solid 6’4.75”, DiVincenzo performed well in other combine measurables, scoring the top max vertical leap of 42”. At Villanova he also averaged 4.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists in his 29.3 minutes a game — he has a strong motor and is a smart player who could contribute spot minutes for the Pacers in year 1, though he might not be the best fit for the Pacers since he could be limited to a role as Oladipo’s backup or a Lance replacement. DiVincenzo is occasionally listed as a point guard, so if he is able to develop his handle and playmaking, he could become a nice fit next to Oladipo as a complementary ball-handler.
Thomas stands at only 6’3, but offers a crazy long wingspan of 6’10.5. He has long legs that cover a lot of ground in few steps like a gazelle; he is quick and agile and capable of getting his hand in the face of much taller shooters. He would be a menace defensively for the Pacers, and alongside Victor Oladipo the Pacers would have one of the strongest defensive backcourts in the league. He is somewhat limited offensively, however, and wouldn’t be able to serve as the primary ball-handler. Thomas is a capable spot-up shooter, having shot 41.1% from 3 on 5.1 attempts per game in his Junior season at Creighton, but there isn’t much else there offensively.
As mentioned in our mock draft, Robinson is a proven scorer after averaging 20+ points per game in a tough ACC while shooting a really solid 40.9% from 3 on 5.7 attempts. He didn’t have a ton of assists or rebounds at 3.3 and 3.6 a game, respectively, but at 6’5” he can play the wing and provide spot-up shooting and offensive creation off the bench. The Pacers second unit badly needed 3-point shooting and offensive creators this past season, and Robinson’s fluid and confident offensive game would definitely help. His defense is also solid, but he will need to build his frame to guard the 3 position in the NBA.
A raw wing with long limbs and thin frame – Frazier made a big jump offensively between his Sophomore and Junior seasons, and now finds himself on the verge of a first round selection. He would offer the Pacers some much-needed defensive versatility, and after shooting 38.3% from 3 his Junior season, he has big 3-and-D upside if he can continue to develop his offensive game. Frazier could be the OG Anunoby of this year’s draft.
Who the Pacers select could indicate what the front office’s timetable for contention looks like, and how they feel about the likelihood of Thad picking up his option or agreeing to an extension. If they are pushing to contend next year in a weakened East, look for them to select a pro-ready contributor like Brunson or Bates-Diop.
For my money, I’d take Elie Okobo’s high-ceiling offensive potential if he’s available, or Jerome Robinson, a guy with the size and off-ball ability to play the wing but also the experience and comfort with the ball in his hands to be a complementary ball-handler, or Bates-Diop, a savvy, versatile forward with a great feel for the game.
If pre-draft workouts are any indication, Bates-Diop, DiVincenzo, Okobo, Landry Shamet, and Dzanan Musa, are the frontrunners to go at the 23rd pick. Melvin Frazier was also scheduled to workout with the Pacers before a minor injury sidelined him, so he can’t be discounted either.
My prediction: DiVincenzo. He’ll likely be the best shooter available at 23, and his game is well-rounded and advanced enough to contribute early. And after showing out in the National Championship, he’s a proven gamer.
My second round prediction: Devon Hall. With these two picks the Pacers would bolster their roster on both ends with sharpshooting 3-and-D guys who fit the mold of humble(-ish) team players that we love here in Indy.