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Mark's Mailbag: Bogdanovic's Impact, Turner's Improvements

by Mark Montieth Writer

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Editor's Note: Some Mailbag questions have been edited for clarity and length.

Q. How important is it to get Bojan Bogdanovic involved in the game flow, and what more can be done? Are teams focusing more defense on him? He scores almost twice as much in wins than losses (18.9 vs 10.3) and when he is hitting, the Pacers are hard to beat!

— Brian

A. That's a tough one. The nature — and strength — of this Pacers team is its versatility and balance. All of its starters, and a few of its reserves, are proven offensive threats, so it's difficult to feature any one player other than Victor Oladipo, whose athleticism enables him to create shot opportunities better than any of the others.

Some fans have asked me why Turner doesn't get more shots. Other fans want Domantas Sabonis to get more playing time, and to be a bigger part of the offense. I wouldn't be surprised if Thad Young and Darren Collison have their lobbyists, and a case can be made for Cory Joseph to get more shots, since he's statistically one of the team's best shooters. You can see the dilemma, right?

Bogdanovic moves well without the ball and knows how to find openings to get in position to take a pass for an open shot. He also drives the ball better than anyone expected, although he lacks the quickness and vertical jump to finish sometimes. He's a vital element of the offense, and should be as the highest-percentage shooter among the starters. He's closing games more often now, which will increase his opportunities, but he's always going to be limited by his difficulty in creating shots for himself.

He's playing better than ever before, and is happy to be part of a team with a promising future. I think he's happy with his role, as he should be.

Q. With TJ Leaf's defensive liability, where do you see his prospects for the future?

— dpops

A. I think he has a bright future. He's 20 years old, a veteran of just one (impressive) season of college basketball, and has a mature and dedicated approach to the game. I'm not predicting he'll become an All-Star, but I think he'll prove to be a good value for the 18th pick in the draft.

His offense will always be there. He's simply a great shooter, having hit 62 percent of his field goal attempts at UCLA and 47 percent of his 3-pointers. He also shows agility moving toward and around the basket. As I wrote earlier this week, he has to get stronger and learn more about the intricacies of NBA defense, but he will. Repeat: he's 20.

He might always be a bit of a tweener between a small forward and power forward, but those designations mean less than ever, and he should be able to compensate for whatever advantages he gives up at either of those positions. If he's not strong enough to guard some fours around the basket, he should be able to use his perimeter shooting and agility to his advantage against them. And if he's not quick enough to guard some threes on the perimeter, he should be able to use being 6-10 to his advantage.

Leaf reminds me of another UCLA player back in the day, a skinny guy who lacked quickness and strength. That player averaged just four points a game as a freshman for the Bruins, but Reggie Miller went on to become a pretty decent NBA player. I'm not saying Leaf will have a Miller-like career, but it's difficult for me to find a reason why he won't have a good one.

Q. Where would you like to see improvement from Myles Turner? I see his youth in his emotional outbursts, complaining about calls and poor body language after missed shots. I also see him not contesting several shots that I think our primary rim protector should contest, and not going strong to the rim at times. I was actually surprised to see that he is on par with Hibbert as a shot blocker, mainly because I feel I see many missed opportunities. What are your thoughts?

— Brian

A. Turner has potential for, and a need for, a lot of improvement.

I've championed the cause for better post-up skills since he joined the Pacers three seasons ago, but it doesn't seem to be a priority. He says he's worked on it some, but he still appears uncomfortable when he gets the ball around the basket, even when guarded by someone much shorter. I don't see him working on them after practice, either, although that doesn't mean he doesn't do something before or during practice.

He has one of the most skilled post-up players in league history as a teammate, Al Jefferson. But whenever I ask Jefferson about tutoring Turner, he says he doesn't think Turner needs those skills yet, that Turner is the prototype center for today's NBA. Still, it seems to me a good idea for Turner to round out his skill set with some post moves. What could it hurt for a 6-11 player to have them?

I wouldn't describe his body language as "poor," though. He's emotional, and has kind of a jittery personality. He's even that way when talking to the media, offering quick, clipped answers. He's not impolite by any means, and his intelligence and maturity are readily apparent. He's just a Type A personality who badly wants to play well and shows his frustration when he misses a shot or makes a mistake. Perhaps he'll relax a bit with more experience.

I can't fault his rim protection, either. (Funny how that term has entered the basketball lexicon, isn't it?) He leads the NBA with a 2.44 block average, well ahead of runner-up Joel Embiid at 1.8, and now has played enough games to qualify among the official leaders. Jermaine O'Neal is the Pacers' all-time leader in blocked shot average, at 2.8. Turner is quick to the ball, and his Type A-ness helps him there. That's a hugely valuable asset for the Pacers, who need all the help they can get on defense.

Q. What do you think? Does the team miss PG? They sure aren't playing like it. And as a fan, I sure don't miss him. Why do you think we are playing so well in his absence?

— Derric

A. Based on the team's record and the fan response to their games, it's safe to say the Pacers do not miss Paul George. They were 10-11 on this date last season and are 14-11 following Wednesday's victory over Chicago, and my Texas Instruments calculator tells me that qualifies as improvement.

It goes beyond the record, though. The improved ball movement and enthusiasm is obvious to fans, not to mention appreciated. Basketball is always at its most entertaining when the ball is shared, rather than coveted. It's like Christmas dinner, you've got to pass the rolls to keep everyone happy.

A couple of points need to be made, however.

Last season's team also showed improved enthusiasm and ball movement after Lance Stephenson arrived with six games left in the regular season. Remember, they lost a double-overtime game at Cleveland in his first appearance, and then won five straight to make the playoffs. They were swept by Cleveland, but took each game into the final minute. Safe to say, that team wasn't the calamity so many people now make it out to be, but was one player away — Stephenson — from having the kind of season expected of it.

And, while it's fashionable for Pacers fans to pile on George these days, I think the criticism goes too far at times. He did dominate the ball too much. He wasn't a great passer. He wasn't a natural leader. But he did average 23.7 points, hit nearly 40 percent of his 3-pointers, nearly 90 percent of his free throws and average 28 points in the playoffs. And, he wasn't the only guilty party on that team. Monta Ellis and Jeff Teague also were accustomed to having the ball in their hands, and were most effective that way. That made it difficult to construct an effective offense.

The bench wasn't as good last season, either. That team's reserves included veterans who were either complacent or frustrated, while this team's backups are more motivated and content with their roles. When you have a proven veteran such as Al Jefferson at the end of the bench, rarely playing but not complaining and always looking to help a younger player, that helps bring great chemistry.

Many factors are influencing this team's encouraging start to the season, well beyond George's absence from it.

Q. How does this year's Pacers team stack up so far this season compared to the predictions from reputable predictors such as ESPN and Bleacher Report? Why do you think the Pacers have found success this season?

— The Fast Break

A. They are exceeding the expectations of the national media, to say the least. And most of the local media, too. All because of the popular viewpoint of the trade with Oklahoma City.

Sports Illustrated, for example, picked them to finish 11th in the Eastern Conference, citing the "one-sided Paul George blockbuster" and their "mediocre-at-best-starters." The website projected 33.9 wins. ESPN predicted 32. went with 30.6 and wrote "Indiana will be bad, but playing in the East should help them land right around the 31-win mark."

I guess it's natural that national media members who aren't around the team failed to understand the impact of the leadership void last season. They also weren't on hand to witness the blatantly positive vibe present from before training camp even began. Nor could they have known the work Oladipo put into improving his body and game over the summer. Most of the local predictions also fell in the 30-35 range, but those seemed to come from people who aren't around the team any more often than the national media. I even heard some predict fewer than 30 wins, with one local guy with a season media credential going on the radio and guessing 20-25.

I was on record for 42 wins, because of a few impressions that have come to fruition. I was impressed with the overall vibe — I keep going back to that word — around the players and I thought Oladipo and Sabonis together would contribute more than George. Both were/are young and bound to improve from one season to the next for at least a few more years — especially Sabonis, who didn't get to show his skill set in OKC.

Turner was bound to improve as well, given his age, and I didn't think Thad Young was old enough to be declining. I also thought Darren Collison could be virtually as good as Jeff Teague, although in different ways. I didn't know quite what to expect from Bogdanovic, but he's been better than expected. He also worked hard to improve over the summer, which points out a common flaw in preseason analyses: people judge young players by what they were rather than what they can become, and fail to factor in improvement.

I also thought the bench would be significantly improved, with Stephenson on hand for a full season and the addition of Joseph.

It might sound like a lie, but my gut instinct was to go with 45 wins. Alas, I let the predictions of others keep me in check. I also had been wrong last season by predicting 50 wins. That was a common analysis, but still wrong. As I stated earlier, had Stephenson been on hand all season, the Pacers might have won eight more games and reached that win total. But shame on me for being overly influenced by the opinion of others.

There's a long way to go, but barring serious injury issues it would be surprising if this team doesn't win at least 42 games. It's certainly going to win more than 30.

Q. Turner's rim protection is great. Fouls seem to take him out of the game mentally. What can their guards do to limit penetration? They seem too fast to constantly get beat off dribble. Is it scheme to funnel towards Myles and run off the 3-point line?

— James

A. I agree, it seems the Pacers should be better at limiting penetration. Collison and Oladipo are quick enough, but Collison struggles some with pick-and-roll defense. Point guards take a beating these days because of that. Talking with assistant coach Dan Burke the other day, he said most teams run 50-60 pick-and-rolls per game. That's a lot for a point guard to contend with, fighting through and over screens set by 250-pound behemoths.

Perimeter defense involves the frontline as well these days, and perhaps the Pacers are giving up too much penetration from those positions as well. I can't claim to have studied this to determine who is most at fault, but what we know for sure is that the Pacers rank 28th in points allowed in the paint, ahead of only the Lakers and Orlando. They'll have to get better in that area to have a chance of progressing in the playoffs. Turner's shot-blocking helps, but he can't be on hand for every shot that goes up.

Some of the points in the paint come in transition, and the best way to limit those is by getting defensive stops. The Pacers are barely a better offensive team than defensive team heading into Friday's game against Cleveland, scoring 108.9 points but allowing 107.3. That ratio will have to improve if they are to get comfortably above .500, and there seems to be more room for improvement on defense than offense.

Q. The Pacers seem to shoot a lot of mid-range jump shots, which aren't the best shots from an analytics perspective. Do you know where they rank in the NBA in that category? Do you think they take too many? Also, they are ranked toward the top in three-point percentage but don't shot a lot of threes. Do you think they should shoot more threes? I don't think their 3-point percentage will hold up through the entire season unless they shot more threes. What do you think?

— Brian

A. You know how to get your money's worth, don't you? Oh, wait, this is a free service. I hope you at least get what you have paid for.

I don't know about rankings on mid-range shots, but it's safe to say they would be wise to slant their offense more toward the 3-point line. They rank second to Golden State in 3-point percentage (.395), but rank 22nd in 3-point shots attempted. For as long as three is more than two, it seems it would be better to take advantage of the quality of their shooting with more quantity.

However, you don't want to disrupt the offense too much. Teams always want to attack the basket, and each team has its rhythm and chemistry. For Nate McMillan to say he wants five or 10 more 3-point shots per game wouldn't necessarily be a good thing. The Pacers move the ball well most of the time, and should go with whatever open shots they find.

I don't see why their 3-point percentage won't hold up, though. It might drop off if they make the playoffs, given the quality of opponents and fatigue, but otherwise it should stay near 40 percent.

Q. Glenn Robinson III has been out, but hopefully will be back within a month or so. He's obviously shown the ability to be a 3&D wing, but is it just his defense the team is missing the most? Especially for our bench unit?

— Surya

A. Defense might be the biggest thing Robinson III can bring, but hardly the only thing. Given the surprising improvement Bogdanovic has shown on defense, it's been less an issue than expected at the wing position. Still, Robinson is a good defender, and should have more success against quicker opponents.

He'll bring offense, too, though. He hit nearly 40 percent of his three-point shots last season, and improved as the season went along. He was 6-of-6 from the field in his three playoff appearances, so he's got a streak to maintain, too.

McMillan says he'll be in the rotation when he's physically ready to be. That will bump Leaf out unless there are other injuries, but Robinson has earned his place and should provide a lift off the bench. It seems he would play well with Stephenson, Joseph, Sabonis and whomever.

Q. Can you explain why teams sag off proven NBA shooters to "help" defend another player? I was watching the Pacers play last week and was getting frustrated with players leaving their man when it didn't appear to be necessary. Sometimes, the ball was on the opposite baseline and players were still drifting only to try and scramble back to their man when the ball swings their way.... too late, open three. Every team has at least one or two players you shouldn't leave.

— Jmwallace30

A. "Help" is the key word here. Players are always taught to help one another on defense, to be "tied together" or "on a string." If the ball is on one side of the court, the weakside defender drops in to give help in case of penetration.

But I'm with you. Teams get carried away with it sometimes. You don't want to give up layups, but some of today's 3-point shooters are so good it's a questionable strategy to leave them alone for even a few seconds.

That's particularly true when someone has a hot hand, as J.J. Redick did in the Pacers' game at Philadelphia earlier this season. At some point it seems better to risk giving up two instead of three when a guy is heading toward his eighth 3-pointer of the game. The Pacers have done a really good job rushing out to contest three-point shots, but in some cases it seems a good idea to wrap your arms around a guy's waist and don't let go. Or something like that.

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