Copeland Hopes Transition Brings Stability

Chris Copeland participated in the NBA's Rookie Transition Program in August, an unusual thing for a two-season veteran of the league to do. 

Then again, it might have been appropriate for one who feels like he's starting over. He has a new body, a new position and a renewed opportunity for playing time in the upcoming season with the Pacers.

Copeland, who entered the NBA two Octobers ago as a free agent and final-cut survivor with the Knicks, had not yet gotten around to attending the program, in which rookies are advised on a variety of issues they'll confront in the league. This year, he was as much a mentor as a student, but still found the program worth a few days of his summer. 

“A lot of people were like, 'What are you doing here?'” he said. “But I actually learned a lot.”

The program's schedule did not includes classes on learning to play small forward. Copeland has been doing that on his own time with the Pacers, preparing to make a shift that should bring the kind of playing time fans were crying for last season. With precious few opportunities for him behind David West and Luis Scola at power forward, he appeared in just half of the regular season's 82 games, for an average of 6.5 minutes. That was less than half of what he had played with the Knicks the previous season, and time enough to score just 3.7 points per game despite hitting 42 percent of his three-point shots.

He'll test the waters at small forward in the upcoming season, a move he and coach Frank Vogel were considering by the end of last season and one that became a better idea than ever after Paul George, broke his leg on Aug. 1. C.J. Miles and Solomon Hill also will contend for playing time there, with Miles the early favorite to start, but Copeland should get more calls to action than last season – particularly with Vogel's plan to use a 10-man rotation throughout the regular season. 

“I look for Chris Copeland to get a lot more minutes at the wing spot,” Vogel said earlier this week, a pronouncement that would have brought applause had fans heard it.

To make the change, however, Copeland had to make some changes. He wasted no time going about it, showing up to work out at Bankers Life Fieldhouse the first day of the off-season after the Game 6 loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals. He came back at least four days each week after that, aside from a week in which he competed in a tournament and the rookie orientation program.   

“I hadn't gone through the rigors of an 82-game season, let's be honest, so I was anxious to get better,” Copeland said. “I wanted to make my presence felt this year.

“I trusted the staff. (Strength and Conditioning Coach) Shawn Windle promised me, if I stayed with him for the summer I'd be in the best shape of  my life. He was correct. I still have a ways to go but I'm definitely in the best shape I've ever been in.”

Copeland's weight had surpassed 240 pounds at times last season, but plunged to 222 after just one month of off-season workouts. He then had to go about putting some back on. He's about 230 now, and plans to stay there. He reduced his meal portions and “lived in the weight room” to become stronger and more agile and went through drills designed for his new position. Defending pick-and-rolls and chasing the likes of George Hill off screens, for example.

“He's not at his ceiling in terms of agility and conditioning, but he's dramatically further ahead than this time last year,” Vogel said.

The mental adjustment will be at least as great as the physical. The Pacers' offense doesn't differentiate much between shooting guards (twos) and small forwards (threes) but there's a significant divergence from small forward to power forward (fours). Small forwards play more on the perimeter, and will likely have to chase opponents around screens and deep into the corners. They also have to be able to contain the dribble of quicker players, rather than focusing on defending post-ups.

Copeland played the position some in New York, although in an entirely different offense, and he got some chances at the position last season –  just not enough of them to be come well-acquainted with it. 

“Even though he's not a natural small forward, he's capable if he's made to learn those responsibilities fulltime,” Vogel said. “The times we tried him there last year, we didn't give him a high volume of reps in training camp and practice. If he failed last year, I don't think it's solely on him. He needs a lot of time and reps to learn that position.

Copeland is by all accounts quicker and faster, but needs to develop new playing habits, both offensively and defensively. Hanging around the three-point line on offense, as he did much of last season as a “stretch four” won't be enough this time around, and he won't be able to hide as much on defense.

“He's moving faster,” assistant coach Dan Burke said, “but he's got to maintain that level and he hasn't been able to do that yet. He has to play with a certain force and speed, and he's still figuring it out.”

Copeland should find some advantages on offense at his new position by posting up other small forwards, and he still should be able to take some off the dribble with his deceiving quickness, as he did late last season when he hit the game-winning shot at Milwaukee by driving into the foul lane.

The greater challenge will come on defense against quicker players, although one that should be mitigated by the fact he'll likely be playing mostly against backup small forwards. The Pacers' enhanced emphasis on team defense, necessitated by George's absence, will add further complexity to the position.

“I think he can do well enough (on defense) to let his offense shine,” Vogel said. “Is he going to be Paul George? He's not going to be Paul George. He's got to work at it. He's got to bring a great deal of spirit and competitiveness to that end and pick up his assignments.”

Added Burke: “ You're never out of a play, the way we're supposed to play. He's still hell-bent on guarding his guy and when he gives up the ball he thinks he's done. No, you've got to get back to your help spot for the next play. And, we're going to ask him to be a big-time help-side rebounder for us. You can never relax.”

Copeland hasn't. But he is hoping to put down some roots in Indianapolis. He bought a house on the northeast side last year, and while he'll be a free agent after the upcoming season, he hopes to make the city a long-term home. He's comfortable enough off the court now to have reacquired his dog, a Husky named Dama (Serbian for “lady”), from his mother.

“I'm hoping to be here for some time,” he said.

At least and at last, he's positioned for a fresh start.  

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