Bitadze Finally Ready to Jump into NBA Fray

It's been so long he can't even remember the last time he played in a game — a real game against players who aren't teammates.

Barring an unexpected setback, Pacers' first-round draft pick Goga Bitadze will make his debut Tuesday when Minnesota comes to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for their final preseason game. He's running late — very late, in fact — but at this point all concerned parties will have to satisfy themselves with the knowledge that one game of preparation for the regular season is better than none.

Bitadze practiced with the team again on Monday and will play as many minutes as he's able to handle against the Timberwolves in what amounts to a crash course of NBA basketball. It's enough of a challenge that he just turned 20 in July, but he's also dealing with an exaggerated lack of experience. His work visa could not be obtained in time for him to compete in Summer League play in July and an ankle injury suffered on the third day of training camp has kept him out of the three preseason games.

Bitadze guessed that his last "real" game came in May, perhaps June. More likely it came on April 22, when the Euroleague team for which he played 13 games, Buducnost VOLI, was eliminated from the playoffs.
Still, he believes his conditioning is adequate from his cardio workouts while nursing his ankle. He's also played in several scrimmages with his teammates since August. That, however, isn't the same as playing against another team in a preseason game, which isn't the same as playing against another team in a regular season game.

He has to start somewhere, though. Bitadze has been slotted for regular playing time as a backup center, but his lack of game experience makes it nearly impossible to measure his progress and readiness for the task ahead.

"I mean, he's a rookie," coach Nate McMillan said Monday. "He's young.

"Where is he at? Just beginning."

Myles Turner can relate to Bitadze's issue better than anyone. Turner also was drafted as a 19-year-old and had to overcome injuries early in his rookie season. He missed some training camp practices with a sore knee, missed one preseason game with a strained left calf and then missed the season opener at Toronto with a sore right ankle.

Turner at least had the benefit of Summer League games and six preseason games before making his NBA debut in the second regular game, making him a grizzled veteran compared to Bitadze. He went on to play in seven games, then fractured his left thumb early in his eighth game and had to sit out the next 21 before returning on Dec. 30.

"It's tough," Turner said. "He's not going to have that real experience. It's tough to have your real experience come in an actual NBA game, not a preseason game. Hopefully he'll be able to get out there (Tuesday)."

"In practices he shows that he's capable, but he's got to play in NBA games to get that real experience."

Goga Bitadze

Goga Bitadze receives instruction from Pacers assistant coach Dan Burke (Photo Credit: @Pacers)

Turner isn't predicting disaster for the rookie, however. Whereas he had just one season of college basketball behind him, mostly as a backup player, when drafted by the Pacers, Bitadze has played professionally for three years. Played well, too. He was voted the Rising Star of the Euroleague last season, an honor for players under 22 years old that's voted upon by the coaches. The list of previous winners is filled with established NBA players, including Luka Doncic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nikola Mirotic, Ricky Rubio, Danilo Gallinari, and Andrea Bargnani.

"I think he knows the game better than I did," Turner said. "When I came into the league I didn't really know how to rotate on defense, I didn't really know NBA sets, I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I could score. That was my saving grace; I could shoot the ball. With him, he can do a little bit of everything. He knows the game a lot better than I did at that age."

McMillan, an assistant coach with the Pacers during Turner's rookie season, mostly agrees.

"They're similar," McMillan said. "Goga seems to be comfortable playing in the paint. Myles has always been a perimeter guy. Goga can play in the paint, can play on the perimeter. They're different in the skills they have. Both of them defend the basket."

The Pacers likely will need all of whatever Bitadze can give them when they open the season against Detroit on Oct. 23. Both Turner and Domantas Sabonis can play center, but they will start together, creating the need for a backup "big." Nobody else on the roster is a viable candidate for that role.

For now, it belongs to Bitadze.

"We'll see," McMillan said. "That's kind of where we've got him at. We'll see as we get into the season what the rotation is going to look like. The rotation, on Oct. 23...if you ask me Nov. 23 it could be a little different. I don't know."


Edmond Sumner, who missed Sunday's Fan Jam activities with an illness, also missed Monday's practice and is doubtful for Tuesday's game...McMillan said he plans to play his starters most of the first half and turn the second half over to his reserves...Minnesota is 1-2 in preseason play, with the only victory coming over Haifa Maccabi Haifa. The Timberwolves lost to Phoenix 111-106 and to Golden State 143-120.

Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.