Malcolm Brogdon stands straight and tall, his demeanor in a tight contest with his words to remain deadly serious.
Oh, there was the time Saturday when T.J. McConnell, standing behind the backs of the reporters gathered around Brogdon on the side of the practice court, managed to crack Brogdon's deadpan with some clowning antics, but that lasted but a second.
"Get out of here, bro," Brogdon said with the slightest of smiles to McConnell, who went back to shooting on the practice court.
The results of Brogdon's serious approach to his work have been vivid through the Pacers' first five games. He's excelled one way or another, and usually in various ways, in each one, providing consistent contributions and leadership to a new team trying to find itself, and the best foundation of hope for the future.
He's averaging 22.6 points, 10.2 assists, and 2.4 turnovers over 34 minutes. He had a double-double of points and assists in each game until Friday's 102-95 victory over Cleveland, when he had six assists, but was handicapped in that game by the fact his teammates combined to shoot just 39 percent. He's scored as many as 30 points, has yet to dip below 15 and ranks second in the NBA in assists behind LeBron James.
All of which doesn't account for his defense and intangibles, not to mention his budding role of assistant coach. For a player who had never played point guard other than as a fill-in for a missing starter or in spot minutes as a backup, he's taken to it like a man who's finally found his way home. Forget that he only started one game at point guard in two seasons with Milwaukee (he had 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists in 26 minutes in a 16-point victory at Washington last February). He declared it was his best position during his introductory press conference after his trade to the Pacers in July and he's backed up the claim every day since then.
The best indication of his fit for the job is his Player Efficiency Rating, which consolidates a player's entire performance via complicated formula into one number, taking into account playing time and pace of play. Brogdon's rating is 28.9. For perspective, Domantas Sabonis was last season's leader for the Pacers at 21.9. Victor Oladipo's rating during his All-Star season two years ago was 23.1. George McGinnis' rating during his league MVP season of 1974-75 was 25.1. Reggie Miller's best PER season was 21.2.
As for the all-timers, Michael Jordan's best rating was 31.7 and LeBron James' was 31.8, last season.
"He's been unreal," Doug McDermott said. "He knows how to control a team. He's got that demeanor where he can really lead a team and lead by example. We're following his lead. He's putting up some crazy numbers very quietly."
It's important to point out that we're only five games into the season, too early for final declarations. It's also important to point out that Brogdon is a fourth-year pro adjusting to a new position. While his numbers might be inflated a bit by the absence of Oladipo and, more recently, Myles Turner, he's also far more likely to improve than regress.
"It's going to be a work in progress for me for years to come," he says.
Brogdon's relationship with coach Nate McMillan and the rest of the coaching staff has been crucial to his sprint out of the blocks. McMillan is a former second-round draft pick who played point guard for 12 seasons in the NBA, contributing so much in non-scoring ways as a part-time starter that his number was retired by Seattle. Brogdon can relate to him as well as to assistant coach/defensive coordinator Dan Burke, to the extent he has become practically a member of the coaching staff.
An example: Detroit was "killing us on, a stack play" in their second meeting on Monday, so Brogdon suggested to Burke at halftime that they veer from the defensive philosophy and switch on screens. Burke agreed, and the defensive effort improved noticeably in the second half, and continues to do so.
Another example: Brogdon had an idea how to get more movement in the early offense during Friday's morning shootaround. McMillan stopped practice and let him explain. "OK, that looks good to me," McMillan said, and the plan was implemented.
It's a two-way street, of course. McMillan and Brogdon often review video together, during which McMillan draws upon his point guard-ing experience to make plenty suggestions of his own.
"Me and coach McMillan have a lot of open dialogue every single day," Brogdon said. "More than I've had with any coach I've ever been coached by. Him just asking what I see out there, him bringing to me suggestions and wanting my commentary...we're always in communication.
"All the coaches are so open...there's such a low ego. They listen to the players, the players listen to the coaches, there's a lot of trust."
Brogdon has been instrumental in improving the Pacers' defense, not just by strategic suggestions but also by instilling better communication. It took a while for quiet guys Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren to feel comfortable shouting directions to their new teammates, and for others to know when to speak up, but a mindset is gradually taking form. The Pacers' defensive performance against Cleveland on Friday was the best so far, and absolutely necessary in a game when they shot poorly.
"Most of the guys on the team are talking now," Brogdon said. "And the guys who are supposed to talk are talking now."
Brogdon chooses his words carefully when talking with the media. No joking around after practice (unless a teammate butts in for a split second), no celebrating after victories, no ranting after losses. He's always in mentor mode, balancing his praise with perspective.
Friday's victory, then, was merely "a step in the right direction." And rookie Goga Bitadze's vital and promising contribution of 10 points and nine rebounds was nice and all, but nothing to gush over.
"I don't want it to be fool's gold for him," he said. "I don't want him to think it's easy. He needs to bring that preparation, that focus, every night. And we'll stay on him to make sure he does. He's extremely talented, he's going to be really good for us this season, but it's a long season and you have to understand that."
McMillan said Sabonis did not practice on Saturday because of a contusion to his left calf, suffered during the fourth quarter of Friday's game. Sabonis is a game-time decision for Sunday's game against Chicago.
With Myles Turner already sidelined by a sprained ankle, what if Sabonis can't go? "I'm trying not to think about it," McMillan said.
McMillan can only plan hypothetically for now. The Pacers won't have a shootaround on Sunday because of the 5 p.m. start so he might not know if Sabonis can play until late afternoon. Either way, Bitadze will be called upon again for extended playing time. If Sabonis can't go, JaKarr Sampson and Alize Johnson could be called upon to mix it up around the basket. Both are 6-foot-9 and about 215 pounds.
"Everybody has to be ready to go," McMillan said. "Injuries are a part of the game. You never know. As I've told them, it' s going to happen and your opportunity is going to come."
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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.
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