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Collison's Assist, West's Absence Benefits Pendergraph

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

March 23, 2013, 1:00 AM

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Darren Collison accumulated 690 assists in his two seasons with the Pacers, but the most important one didn't go on a stat sheet. That would be the dime he dropped on the front office by persistently recommending his boyhood buddy, Jeff Pendergraph.

It might look like an obvious plug now that Pendergraph is joining Tyler Hansbrough in taking full advantage of the void at power forward left by David West's absence, but at the time it amounted to a leap of faith. Pendergraph was a second-round draft pick by Portland's general manager Kevin Pritchard (now filling the same role with the Pacers) in 2009, had an uneventful rookie season in which he averaged 2.7 points over 39 games, tore the ACL in his right knee during an exhibition game in 2010, and was released two weeks later.

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That's not exactly the resume' of a targeted free agent, but Collison kept putting his name in the ears of team president Larry Bird and general manager David Morway.

“He talked me up a lot,” Pendergraph said after contributing 10 points and seven rebounds to the Pacers' 102-78 victory over Milwaukee at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “When I was coming back from my ACL surgery, they decided to give me a chance. Darren talked me up that whole year I was hurt.”

Pritchard's arrival in the front office two summers ago clinched it and the rest, as they tend to say, is history. Not immediate history, though.

Pendergraph scored all of 34 points in 20 appearances with the Pacers last season. But with starter David West having missed the past three games with a sprained lower back – with at least two more absences to come – opportunity has finally rapped at Pendergraph's door. While the obvious impact of West's absence in four games has been Hansbrough's run of four double-doubles, the ripple effect has washed over Pendergraph, who replaced Hansbrough in the backup role.

Pendergraph's rounded-off averages in his four games as the primary backup are nine points and seven rebounds in 22 ½ minutes. If Hansbrough is temporarily making people forget West, Pendergraph is making people forget Hansbrough. There's nobody left on the roster to make people forget Pendergraph.

Like Hansbrough, he hopes West comes back soon … but will enjoy every minute of his absence. Like Hansbrough, knowing he's going to get to play for meaningful minutes has been a calming influence.

“You're not so tense,” he said. “You can get your mind so you're ready to play because you know you're going to play, versus tricking your mind into it by saying, 'Just stay ready, just stay ready, just stay ready ... oh, no, not today.' And then in other games, you're dealing with all of a sudden someone getting three or four fouls and it's, 'Now I've got to go,' and turn it on all of a sudden.”

Hansbrough and Pendergraph have helped keep the Pacers from losing a game during the absence of the player some consider to be their most valuable. They've also served notice to future employers, rather they're the Pacers or another team. Neither is going to want to continue his role as it exists when West is healthy, and their recent performances offer evidence they're capable of a heavier workload.

File this one in the category of good problems to have, one the Pacers' front office can worry about after the season when West and Pendergraph become free agents. For now, it's looking like an embarrassment of riches.

“I think he's a heckuva player, maybe a starter,” coach Frank Vogel said of Pendergraph. “He's definitely at least a rotation player. The thing people don't know about Jeff Pendergraph is that he's got an extraordinary basketball IQ. He's like an assistant coach out there, in every practice and every film session. He's coaching everybody. He sees everything and really, really understands the game.”

Collison must have known that. He and Pendergaph have been friends since they attended elementary school together in Etiwanda, Calif., which lies roughly halfway between Los Angeles and Reggie Miller's hometown of Riverside. They lived about five minutes away from one another and played together on a high school team that failed to advance past the Indiana equivalent of the Regional portion of the state tournament. They lost in the first game against a Los Angeles team as seniors.

One would think a high school team with two future NBA players would do better than that, but Pendergraph can find comfort – and the last word – with his employment in the NBA, something that eluded his opponents.

“I'm playing now and they're not, so it doesn't really matter,” he said.

Pendergraph attended Arizona State, while Collison went off to UCLA. They each stayed all four years, then entered the draft in 2009. Collison went 21st to New Orleans. Pendergraph was the first pick of the second round, going 31st to Portland. Hansbrough, meanwhile, went 13th to the Pacers. Although Collison was traded to Dallas last summer, Pendergraph still has Pritchard on hand to contribute to his comfort zone.

“It's been cool to see him around,” he said. “It's cool to sit down and talk with him. I don't get scared and think, Oh, no, it's the GM! I talk to him like he's one of the guys.”

Without donning rose-colored glasses, West's absence can be interpreted as a positive for the Pacers. He's getting some rest while his back heals, perhaps restoring some vitality to his 32-year-old legs. Hansbrough and Pendergraph, meanwhile, are gaining more experience and confidence that can be utilized when they return to their previous roles on the bench – assuming they can accept the disappointment of the downgrade.

“We definitely want David healthy, but it's given us some opportunities and some momentum in case something does happen in the playoffs and we need to step in,” Hansbrough said.

Hansbrough, at least, knows he's going to play, either as a starter or reserve. Pendergraph will have to accept the very real possibility of not playing at all when West is in the lineup, as he's already done in 41 games this season. There's just not enough room in the competitive part of a game for three power forwards, and West's credentials as player and leader are too pristine to challenge.

Still, West's injury has been healing for Pendergraph.

“I'm building more and more confidence with the coaching staff; they know what I can do,” he said. “Tyler, same thing. He's getting his mojo going, so when D West comes back there's no fall-off from starter to backup to third guy in the spot. We can all pick up the slack for each other if we need to.”

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