Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson took two very different paths to the NBA, but their journeys ultimately led them to the same destination.
The Pacers' two picks in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft arrived in Indianapolis late Friday morning and were introduced to the media in a press conference at the Ascension St. Vincent Center, the culmination of a whirlwind week for the duo as they officially embark on their professional careers.
Both players arrived in Indiana via private jets, where they were greeted at the airport by Pacers mascot Boomer and members of the Indiana Pacemates, before heading to the team's practice facility to tour the building, meet coaches and staff, and then hold court with the media.
"We got two fantastic kids," Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard said at the start of Friday's press conference.
For Duarte, playing in the NBA was originally not what he envisioned while growing up in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. In fact, he originally played baseball and was a star pitcher in Little League.
"Every Dominican's dream is to make it to the major leagues," Duarte said Friday.
But around the age of 13, basketball started to really grab his attention. Eventually, he decided to move to the United States for his final two years of high school to pursue basketball. He didn't speak any English when his family first moved to New York.
"Everything was different for me," he said. "Different food, different culture, different language."
He slowly learned the language with help from Duolingo and hanging around his teammates. After high school, he enrolled at Northwest Florida State College, a junior college on the Gulf Coast. Already 20 years old when he started playing, Duarte's NBA dreams still felt a long ways away, but he kept at it. The 6-6 wing put together two strong seasons, winning the NJCAA Player of the Year Award as a sophomore and was recruited to the University of Oregon.
Duarte's game continued to blossom in Eugene under the tutelage of head coach Dana Altman. He averaged 12.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.7 steals in his first season with the Ducks, then made another leap last season, when he was named Pac-12 Player of the Year after averaging 17.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.9 steals while shooting 53.2 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from 3-point range.
Duarte turned 24 in June, making him the oldest player in this year's draft class. In fact, when the Pacers selected him on Thursday with the 13th overall pick, he was the oldest player selected in the first round since 2002.
But in this case, his age didn't deter the Pacers, who fell in love with Duarte on and off the court. He visited Indiana for a pre-draft workout on July 21, just eight days before the draft. The Pacers also spoke to Altman, who raved about the energetic Dominican guard.
"He basically said he's the most competitive kid he's ever coached," Pritchard said Friday. "And he's willing to do the work to become a great defensive player and a great offensive player."
Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle told the media Thursday night that they view Duarte's game as polished enough that he could conceivably crack Indiana's rotation right away as a rookie. They love his tenacity on the defensive end, but Pritchard said his offensive skillset was ultimately what led the Blue & Gold to take him at 13.
"As you're watching the Finals and the semifinals, there seems to be one trait that's getting elevated and more important every year," Pritchard said. "And that is can you break a guy down off the dribble and elevate and shoot. And he's elite at that...he's a shot creator, but he's also a shot maker."
Duarte hopes to fill that role on the court for Indiana. And while his attention is focused on basketball now, he still has one last dream on the baseball diamond.
"A lot of people don't believe that I throw 90 (miles per hour), but I'm going to prove it," he joked on Friday. "I'm going to show it one time."
Duarte also has a special inspiration in his son, Christopher Jr., who stole the show on draft night. When his name was called, Duarte gave his son a lengthy kiss on the head. And then as he was being interviewed by ABC, Duarte was joined by his son, who sat on the lap of his mother and Duarte's girlfriend, Sylvia Velazquez. Christopher Jr. was nonplussed by all the attention surrounding his father and much more interested in playing with the nearby microphone.
Duarte said his son was born in the spring of 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which in some ways turned out to be a blessing for him as it allowed him to spend several months with Christopher while he was a newborn.
"I love that boy," Duarte said. "He makes me work harder, day in and day out. He makes me push harder every day. I love him so much and I'm just happy to be a dad."
While Duarte is one of the oldest players in recent draft history, Jackson followed a more prototypical path to the NBA. The 19-year-old was a "one-and-done" player who spent a year at college's biggest NBA factory, the University of Kentucky.
Jackson was the 33rd first-round pick from Kentucky under Hall of Fame coach John Calipari. When the Pacers selected him with the 22nd overall pick (acquired via a trade with details to be announced later), it made it 12 straight seasons that a Wildcat has been selected in the first round.
For the Pacers, acquiring Jackson was the culmination of a "very active" night, as Pritchard described it. The Blue & Gold entered the evening with two late second-round selections, the 54th and 60th overall picks, but through a series of maneuvers were able to move back into the first round to add a second player they really liked.
"It happened very quickly," Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan explained Friday. "It was almost on the clock, to be honest with you...We had targeted a couple players that were falling. Isaiah looked like he might be able to be gettable if we could get to the right spot.
"And the deal literally came on the clock. We had to communicate to one team who we were drafting and they had to communicate that to the other team. We were thrilled to get it."
It was a wild sequence for Jackson, too. He was told that he was headed to Indiana, but then Commissioner Adam Silver announced that the Lakers, who owned the 22nd pick entering the night, were drafting him. He was summoned up to the stage as purple and gold flashed on the screen and handed a Lakers hat (later, the league would swap that out for a Pacers hat).
"It's been real crazy," Jackson said. "Andrew, my agent, he sort of calmed me down a bit, telling me Indiana was picking me up. But when it first happened, it was just a bottle of emotions. I was scared to do my interviews because I didn't want to have to do something with the Lakers if I was not going there."
Ultimately, Indiana was the preferred destination for Jackson, who grew up a few hours away in Detroit and has visited the city many times for tournaments in the past. His parents and his brother accompanied him to Friday's press conference and were elated to see him end up at a franchise within driving distance.
"I hold my family dearly to my heart, so hearing that I was getting picked up close to home, it put a smile to my face," Jackson said.
The 6-10 big man started 18 of 25 games in his lone year at Kentucky, where he averaged 8.4 points on 54 percent shooting and 6.6 rebounds, but most impressively blocked 2.6 shots in 20.8 minutes per game.
"We need to have an infusion of athleticism on this team," Carlisle said of Jackson's addition. "We need shotblocking. We really don't have a prototypical rim threat for lobs. And we need defensive versatility. When he worked out here and played here in the competitive part of (the workout), he demonstrated a feel for the game that I thought was unique for a guy 6-9, 6-10 that had been playing center."
After that workout, Carlisle pulled Jackson aside to work on a few potential adjustments to his shot. Jackson mentioned that moment as when he started to think that he could end up in Indiana. For Carlisle, it was a chance to test Jackson's adaptability.
"We believe long-term that he has a great chance to develop into not only a five that can block shots, run, and do all those things, but can also become a skilled four," Carlisle said. "It's going to take work...His role at Kentucky was more as a rim-runner, rim threat. He wasn't on the perimeter that much.
"But in our game today, you're seeing that the centers are shooting the ball from 30 feet. And so there's got to be a developmental path and a trajectory for a guy like him that has the feel and the tools."
Jackson is open to that developmental process. Though he wasn't born until 2002, he is a student of the game and cited Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett as his favorite player. Jackson said Friday that he has "already got the defensive intensity" that Garnett played with but hopes to also develop his shot under Carlisle's guidance to hopefully one day also possess the same offensive capabilities as his idol.
"He's just got an amazing opportunity with an organization that believes in him and what he's been about and what he can become," Carlisle said. "This is a very exciting day. He's by no means a finished product, but nor is Chris Duarte. These guys are both going to get better and better."