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Improved Bench Key to Pacers' Growth

by Mark Montieth

October 3, 2012

Should anyone have doubted whether starting positions are open for the Pacers, the opening few minutes of media day answered that question. One of the first tasks accomplished was to pose the five starters for a group photo.

That figurative "No Vacancy" sign wasn't meant as a slight against the bench players, however, and didn't come as a surprise to any of them. They know their place, yet know their value, which happens to be as the proverbial X factor for a team with championship ambition. The starting lineup returns intact from a team that lost in the second round of the playoffs last season. With Paul George the only starter with significant upside remaining, the bench will have to be improved for the team to be improved.

So far, so good. Ask Roy Hibbert about the major impression left from the team's scrimmages prior to the start of training camp, and he doesn't hesitate a moment.

"Man, our bench is really good," he said.

Five new players will be sitting on it during the upcoming season: point guard D.J. Augustin, forwards Gerald Green and Sam Young and centers Ian Manhimi and Miles Plumlee. Aside from the rookie Plumlee, the other four have combined to start 246 games in the NBA. They'll join holdovers Tyler Hansbrough, Lance Stephenson and Jeff Pendergraph to form a unit the Pacers believe will provide improved size, scoring, rebounding, defense and camaraderie—which pretty much covers the gamut.

Augustin holds the ignition key, being a pass-first point guard whom the Pacers have coveted since the 2008 draft. Former team president Larry Bird had decided to take him with the 11th pick, but Charlotte intercepted him at No. 9. Augustin's agent had told him when the eighth selection came up that he was going to the Pacers. The tap on the shoulder from Charlotte president Michael Jordan came as a shock, because the Bobcats had not worked him out before the draft.

The Pacers instead drafted Jerryd Bayless and traded him and Ike Diogu to Portland for the 13th pick (Brandon Rush), Jarrett Jack and Josh McRoberts.

Augustin served four years in Charlotte, playing as a starter the final two. His best season came in 2010-11, when he averaged 14.4 points and 6.1 assists while hitting 33 percent of his three-pointers and 91 percent of his foul shots. The numbers slipped last season, when he averaged 11.1 points, but Augustin was largely forgiven for having to function within a dysfunctional group. The Bobcats set league records for futility by finishing 7-59 and losing 23 consecutive games.

He was a division winner for the NBA's Sportsmanship Award in 2011, and was first-team All-American and Academic All-American as a sophomore at Texas, before entering the draft, so don't expect him to be the type to to burn a bridge.

"I'm just happy to be on a winning team and a winning organization," he said following Tuesday's morning workout at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "It was hard. But I made it through and now I'm in a better situation. That's in the past."

Augustin wasn't about to let the opportunity to join the Pacers pass. He would have beat the 24-second shot clock buzzer in accepting their one-year contract offer.

"I watched those guys in the playoffs last year and they played together and that's the type of player I am," he said. "Most teams have guys who play one-on-one all the time, and it's kind of selfish sometimes. This team is very unselfish and plays together."

Augustin replaces Darren Collison, who this time last year was regarded as the Pacers' point guard of the future. Collison started 56 of the 66 games last season, putting up numbers similar to Augustin. Some would regard Collison as a better athlete and scorer than Augustin, but the Pacers regard Augustin as the better passer and ballhandler—and therefore the better fit for their roster.

"D.C. was more of an attacking point guard, but I think D.J. can really penetrate and kick out," Hibbert said. "He gives you the illusion he's about to score in the paint and then finds open guys on the perimeter. I've never seen anyone with handles as good as him."

George Hill, who replaced Collison in the starting lineup at the end of the regular season and throughout the playoffs, and was rewarded with a five-year contract following a solid playoff performance, views Augustin as another starter. Had the Bobcats not intervened in 2008, he might still be one with the Pacers.

"I love him," Hill said. "That second unit is going to be deadly with him leading them."

The Pacers believe their front line has been strengthened with the addition of Manhimi, and hope Plumlee can contribute as well. Manhimi is two inches taller than the player he replaces, Lou Amundson, and has the experience of three appearances with Dallas in the NBA Finals in 2011, when the Mavericks defeated Miami for the championship.

The Pacers caught a break last season when Hibbert stayed healthy and three other premier Eastern Conference centers, Dwight Howard, Brook Lopez and Andrew Bogut, did not. They didn't want to take that chance again.

Green, meanwhile, brings a world of experience. Literally. He's played for five NBA teams, as well as teams in China and Russia. He finished last season with the New Jersey Nets, averaging 12.9 points, and might, perhaps, just maybe could be ready to fulfill the potential assigned to him when he was drafted out of high school by Boston in the first round of the 2005 draft. He's a 6-8 shooting guard who made 39 percent of his three-pointers last season with the Nets, and athletic enough to have won the NBA's slam dunk competition in 2007.

At this point he's up for anything, having already experienced just about everything.

"It doesn't really matter what my role is, I'm just going to prepare myself for every day," Green said.

Young was brought in primarily for defense, but has a proven ability to score. He averaged 7.4 points as a rookie with Memphis in 2009-10, and 7.3 the following year, when he started 46 games in the regular season and 11 in the playoffs. He scored 17 points against San Antonio in Game 2 of the first-round series and 18 in Game 5, as the Grizzlies upset the Spurs.

"We needed a body that can play (against small forwards and power forwards)," Pacers president Donnie Walsh said. "Sam is a good basketball player on both ends."

The returning reserves haven't been replaced. Hansbrough is said to have sharpened his skills, adding a left hand to his offensive game. Stephenson, who was last seen scoring 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting in the final regular season game against Chicago, continues to develop and mature, and Pendergraph looks like an NBA player when he gets the opportunity. He scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds in his only start last season, in 18 minutes at Detroit.

The Pacers split time between some positions last season, partly because of the lockout-compressed schedule, partly because of injuries and partly because of the talent breakdown. Vogel plans to have more of a "starter-owned team" this time around, with most of those five players averaging more than 30 minutes per game. Still, he'll go with a 10-man rotation, and count on contributions from everyone.

"It's good for the chemistry of the team, and good for the health of the team," Vogel said. "We definitely plan to take advantage of our depth."

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