Excitement Abounds as Pacers Prepare to Tip Off New Season

For Pacers fans, Christmas will indeed come early this season. Indiana will officially tip off the 2020-21 NBA season on Wednesday night by hosting the New York Knicks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

It will be a different holiday season in many ways, of course. The COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for the season starting two days before Christmas instead of mid-October. Teams will play a condensed, 72-game schedule. And no fans will attend Wednesday's opener, or the first several games at The Fieldhouse.

But still, the Pacers are back for another campaign with many returning faces but a new style of play under first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren.

Bjorkgren has had three weeks to install his offensive and defensive schemes in an abbreviated training camp. It's been a crash course for the Pacers' core, one that will continue right up until tipoff against the Knicks.

"We've added a lot more just in the past two days than we have in all of training camp," center Myles Turner, the longest-tenured Pacer, said on Monday.

"Our schemes are a lot different than they have been in the past. So I think just being open to change and trusting Coach to install his system and put his trust in us. Trust definitely works both ways in that sense."

The new schemes have been complicated by injuries to key pieces like Turner, who missed two of Indiana's three preseason contests after being evaluated for a concussion, and forward T.J. Warren, who did not play in any of the exhibitions due to plantar fasciitis.

But both Turner and Warren returned to the practice court on Sunday and should be available on Wednesday. Despite their absences, Bjorkgren has seen significant progress over the course of camp, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

"The guys are pushing themselves to follow the plan," Bjorkgren said. "They're holding each other accountable on the things that we focus on on defense. And it's fun to watch. They're talking a lot more now.

"As you can imagine, when it was new that first day of practice there was a lot of energy and a lot of talk on defense, but now the communicating is much more efficient and they're communicating in the right way on where people should be and how they guard the ball."

Offensively, Indiana figures to shoot a lot more 3-pointers than in years past. The Blue & Gold ranked last in the NBA in 3-point attempts a year ago, but took 40 or more 3-pointers in all three of their preseason contests. The Pacers have only attempted 40 threes in three regular season games in franchise history.

For players like Turner, who has always had a 3-point shot in his arsenal, the greater emphasis on shooting from beyond the arc is a welcome development.

"I've never hesitated to let it fly," Turner said. "I've been given the green light to shoot the ball, so you give me the opportunities, I'm going to put them up. I work too hard day in and day out on my shot not to shoot it."

Other players might not be as comfortable letting the ball fly from beyond the arc, but Bjorkgren has been clear that every player on the roster is encouraged, if not compelled, to shoot from long range.

"If you're open from three, you take it," Bjorkgren said. "If you're not open, you pass it...I don't ever want to tell a guy that he can't shoot a shot. I just try to show our guys that there are better shots to be had."

Unfortunately, circumstances beyond anyone's control will prevent fans from witnessing Wednesday's opener in person. While Turner noted the team grew accustomed to playing in front of no fans while in the NBA bubble in Orlando last season, he admitted it will have a different feeling doing so in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, particularly on opening night.

"Especially with the home opener, there's an anticipation of going there and hearing your name called, hearing the crowd, and the crowd itself getting you into the game," Turner said. "The simulation of fan noise (being piped in), there's no comparison."

Cassius Stanley, the only rookie on the Pacers' roster, has no point of comparison.

"The first game I didn't even notice there was no fans, I was just so into the game," he said. "I think it was a bigger thing for the guys that have played for years with fans. Because for me, I don't really know anything (about it)."

Stanley's official NBA debut will likely come in a game played without fans and it could be as early as Wednesday. He logged 44 minutes over Indiana's three preseason contests, averaging 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds. The second-round pick out of Duke has impressed fans with his athleticism and his teammates with his maturity.

"Cassius has been very open to us coming and talking to him," Turner said. "He's very composed out there. I feel like he's not afraid of the spotlight or afraid of the big moment.

"He's going to have his bumps and bruises down the line, but as a whole I just think I've been impressed with his composure and his mentality towards camp. He just doesn't back down from anybody, he plays him, and he's a real impressive young man."

Stanley has leaned heavily on the veterans on the team to help him acclimate to the NBA. His rookie season has been more condensed than most with the draft taking place just days before the start of training camp.

"Victor (Oladipo) always tells me little things in practice and the game," Stanley said. "Malcolm (Brogdon)'s always making sure if I mess up he tells me what I need to do better. I really look at Jeremy Lamb and Justin Holiday — those two have been pretty crucial for me. Justin gave me some great advice (in the first preseason game) that I can carry on into each game and throughout my rookie season.

"They've all been great at just making sure that my transition is going as smooth as it can be."