Goga Both Colorful and Grounded
Don't let the pink shoelaces color your opinion. The 20-year-old rookie is manning up.
Goga Bitadze admittedly has a lot to learn, but the first two days of the Pacers' training camp have made it clear he has the body and the heart to mix it up against NBA behemoths such as Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
The pre-training camp scrimmages were one thing, but this is another. The pre-season games will be yet another thing, and the regular season games will become the biggest other of all. Bitadze, however, has enough history in European professional leagues and in his brief time with the Pacers to make teammates and coaches confident he'll be able to handle the battles around the basket.
"He's real physical," Myles Turner said following Sunday's morning practice at St. Vincent Center. "He'll bump. He likes to wrestle."
Bitadze showed aggression around the basket while scoring on a couple of offensive possessions in a scrimmage on Sunday and has been known to block a dunk or two since camp began. Although perfectly willing to talk trash in games in Europe, he's engaged in none of that in training camp. He's a first-round draft pick and all, but he knows his place.
"I never talk trash to my teammates," he said. "I try to stay calm. (But I'll) go out there in the game and talk trash all day.
"I just try to contest every shot. Sometimes I get dunked on, sometimes I block shots. Mostly I block shots, so that's good. It doesn't matter. It's all about the games."
Bitadze will get his first taste of NBA game action when the Pacers play Sacramento in Mumbai, India on Friday and Saturday. Coach Nate McMillan will rest Turner and Sabonis on Saturday, meaning Bitadze and the other "bigs" on the roster will get a long look in the second game.
Bitadze also shows the delicate shooting and passing skills of someone blessed with hand-eye coordination, which sets him up to become a complete player. McMillan has seen enough glimpses of it to be convinced of his long-term potential.
"He has a great feel for the game, offensively and defensively," McMillan said. "He's going to be a really good two-way player. His ability to score, shoot the ball, post up, pass the ball, dribble the ball, his feel for the game … he has all that at 20 years old. He just has a beautiful body.
"You look at him and his body and think in the next couple of years what he can become, the future is really bright for Goga as well as the Pacers."
Turner likewise is optimistic for Bitadze's future, with an obvious caveat.
"Goga's good, man," Turner said. "The biggest thing is getting real games under your belt. He's looking great in pickup or when we're playing. He's a shot-blocker, he's a shooter, he's skilled. He's stronger than he appears. He's pretty solid for being 19, 20 years old.
"I think he's faring well right now, but when he gets in real competition, that's when he's going to have to experience it."
Bitadze appears to have a healthy combination of playfulness and maturity.
The maturity shows in his humble respect for the veterans on the roster and the acknowledgement that he has a long way to go before becoming a regular contributor to an NBA team. He said he'll need to become more aggressive, quicker and stronger. Asked for the area in which he most needs to improve, he quickly responded with defending pick and rolls.
McMillan didn't disagree.
"We've given these guys a lot in a day-and-a-half," McMillan said. "You can see his head (spinning) trying to process everything we're doing. It's a little different than when you're playing pickup. He looks like a rookie out there.
"He's going to be OK, but it's going to take some time."
The playfulness is as plan as the look of his shoes, set off by the pink laces.
"It's just swaggy," he explained.
Why wear them?
"This is new," he said. "It's 2019-20, you know?"
His teammates apparently respect that about him, too.
"He's got a little personality on him," Turner said, smiling. "He's a funny dude."
Photo Credit: Pacers
Conditioning test aced
For the first time in McMillan's four training camps as the Pacers' head coach every player passed the training camp conditioning test, which was conducted Saturday evening.
The test consists of running lengths of the court under specified times, with different bars set for guards, forwards and centers.
"It's not us worried about you passing the test, it's about you having an opportunity to see where you are," McMillan said. "If the guys aren't doing anything all summer long, they can't pass that test. If they put in some work, they should be able to pass the test. And everybody did."
Eight would be enough
Players welcome the four-game pre-season schedule, cut back from eight two years ago to air out the regular season schedule and provide more days off between games.
McMillan, though, would like to have eight this year to become more acquainted with the games of Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday, T.J .McConnell, JaKarr Sampson and Bitadze, as well as others hoping to earn a roster spot. He also has four new starters until Victor Oladipo returns, and needs to establish chemistry with that group.
"We need time on the floor together," McMillan said. "We're going to be trying to figure this thing out as we try to get into the season. It just takes time to learn each other's tendencies, to build that chemistry, to get a rotation. My group last year, we had been together two or three years. We knew our rotations, we had that chemistry. We have to build that up again."
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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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