Mark's Mailbag: Is Leaf on the Rise?
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Editor's Note: Some Mailbag questions have been edited for clarity and length.
Q. I'm intrigued by Kevin Pritchard's long-term plan for the Pacers. With so much quality depth based on one-year contracts and some expiring rookie contracts, it's fascinating to consider how all the pieces can fit in the future. This is especially true when team chemistry is taken into account. In a perfect world, how do you project this all coming together?
A. I suppose the perfect scenario is for most of the current Pacers with expiring contracts to play so well this season that Pritchard wants to re-sign them.
Obviously, changes will be made, however. It's impossible but intriguing to imagine what the Pacers roster will be this time next year. The next step is to add more players of all-star caliber, one way or another. If one or two emerge from the current roster that means the upcoming season will go well.
Although everyone seems to be accepting his role at the moment, that changes from year to year. Some players won't happily accept being out of the rotation or out of the starting lineup forever, so roster adjustments must always be made.
Q. My question revolves around the Pacers of today and the Pacers of the 90's. I enjoy watching both Turner and Sabonis but I am concerned that we will have a bad breakup like Smits and Antonio Davis of the past.
This offseason, who could the Pacers make a move for? I would like to see Khris Middleton or a bigger name small forward and if we can sign another all-star player and bring back Collision, Turner and Thad can we go to the Finals
A. We're still in the 2018 offseason in a sense, and we're going to start speculating on next summer's transactions?
I understand, though, because this team appears to be an all-star or two away from title contention and people are wondering where those players will come from.
I really can't speculate on who might be targeted. This season will have to play out and then needs can be re-evaluated. With so many expiring contracts, many decisions will have to be made. You can Google the list of available free agents next summer as easily as I can, but there's no way to know at the moment who might be interested in the Pacers. Trades are always a possibility as well.
Q. 1. Is Sabonis too good to be a substitute?
2. Sumner seems to have everything except a shot. He really looked uncomfortable missing a wide open 3 against Houston. Your take?
3. Does Leaf become a rotational player this year — or is he the 10th or 11th man?
Sabonis certainly is a starter-caliber player. He's fine with coming off the bench now, as he told me late last season. He didn't say he would feel that way forever, though, and I have to believe he'll want to start someday. But he's definitely a team-first guy, so you never know. It probably would depend on how the team is doing. If it's winning big and he's getting a lot of minutes off the bench, I doubt he would ever complain about that. The NBA has had many quality sixth men, from John Havlicek to Detlef Schrempf to Manu Ginobili, and it's an honorable role.
Sumner definitely needs to continue working on his shot. I spoke to him about this a couple of weeks ago. He was a 28 percent 3-point shooter at Xavier and a 25 percent shooter for the Mad Ants in Fort Wayne last season, so those numbers speak loudly. His form is still a little hinky so it will be interesting to see if he improves. He can be an effective point guard without a perimeter shot because of his defense and playmaking, but it would come in awfully handy for him. And it's much easier to develop a perimeter shot than to develop quickness and length.
Leaf will be in that 10th or 11th man role unless an injury promotes him. Nate McMillan has said as much, and it's pretty obvious anyway. McMillan designated him the 10th man after practice on Friday, but Kyle O'Quinn might move ahead of him when certain matchups are needed. Leaf might have to wait another season for a shot at regular playing time, but he's only 21 – younger than a lot of college players, obviously. He should play more in the upcoming season than he did last season, when he appeared in 53 games, but it's not unreasonable for him to have to wait another year. When Reggie Miller was 21, he was entering his senior season at UCLA.
Q. How about Edmond Sumner! This guys is killing it this preseason. Is he doing enough to make the 12 man roster or is he destined for Ft. Wayne?
A. I think he's destined to play several games in Fort Wayne. He has a two-way contract that prevents him from spending more than 45 days with the Pacers, not including travel days. If he stays longer he has to be put on an NBA contract and count against the 15-man limit.
It will be good for him to play a lot of minutes for the Mad Ants, and he'll likely get some time with the Pacers as well. More than the two minutes he got at the end of the final game last season.
Q. Do you think Myles is a more effective player than Clint Capela? Not long ago that comparison was heavily in Myles' favor. I haven't seen the huge improvement (in limited preseason minute) I was hoping for, but he looks faster. Also, do you think he'll re-sign for more than Clint?
A. You make an interesting comparison.
Turner was the 11th pick in the draft in 2015. He averaged 10.3 points as a rookie, then 14.5, then 12.7 last season along with 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots. Capela was the 25th pick in the draft in 2014. He averaged 2.7 points as a rookie, then 7, then 12.6, then 13.9 last season along with 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
So, you would have to give the edge to Capela last season. Turner's preseason stats (7.7 points on 36 percent shooting and 5.7 rebounds) weren't what people were anticipating, but we'll have to wait until the regular season to make a legitimate evaluation.
Turner, by the way, had 30 points and 16 rebounds in the season-opener two years ago and 21 points and 14 rebounds in the opener last season. That suggest he can be really effective when he's fresh and fired up. I expect he'll be feeling the same way on Wednesday, and there's no question he's more physically prepared for an NBA season.
Q. Do you think Jermaine O'Neal deserves to have his jersey retired? Or will it never happen because of his 2004 brawl behavior? He was one of the best bigs we've had. Just seems right.
A. Interesting. O'Neal definitely ranks as one of the Pacers' premier bigs, and at his peak would have to be regarded as the best in their NBA history. He was selected to six All-Star teams (played in five games), finished third in the MVP voting in 2004 and was a second-team all-NBA pick that season as well. No other Pacer has ever been voted higher than third team all-NBA.
I don't think his role that infamous night at the Palace will have an impact, but it doesn't seem likely No. 7 will go up to the rafters, either. All of the current Pacers with retired numbers are in the Naismith Hall of Fame and I doubt O'Neal is a candidate for that. He played in 18 NBA seasons, which is a tremendous accomplishment in itself, but he battled injuries after leaving the Pacers. Over his final seven seasons he only played in more than 55 games twice.
But now that I think about it, I could see O'Neal getting into the Hall of Fame via the veteran's committee. Those six All-Star selections and the Most Improved Player award are significant, and he's better than some of the players already in the Hall. If that were to happen it could force the Pacers to recognize him. But I haven't heard any rumblings about doing so now.
As I've stated many times before, Freddie Lewis should be next in line for jersey retirement. He was the captain of three ABA championship teams, the MVP of the 1972 finals, a multi All-Star and the MVP of the All-Star game (although for another team).
Q. A few questions here:
1. Preseason didn't feature Sabonis and Turner together on the court for more than a couple minutes. Should we expect to see this line-up much this year?
2. I love what I saw from Turner even without his shot falling in preseason, but Sabonis looked amazing. If Sabonis does prove to be the better center within the regular season do you see any chemistry issues rising if he's moved into the starting line-up?
3. TJ Leaf showed he has more skill than last year, but he had a lot of easy buckets this preseason. Specifically, he had a few rebounds that bounced right to him that led to some easy lay-ups. Nate wants to go with a nine-man rotation. Did he earn himself a spot in a new 10-man rotation?
4. Darren Collison looks fresh and in great shape. With our depth at point guard should we consider resting him throughout the season so that when the playoffs come he is in great condition?
5. Sumner and Holiday showed they both have NBA ready talent (Sumner maybe a bit more). How can Nate get these guys minutes in a loaded backcourt?
6. I think the Pacers are going to have one of the most balanced offenses in the league with multiple guys averaging 10+ points. Turner got a lot of heat last year for not making the jump. Can Turner make the jump but still only average 12-14 points? What does he need to do?
7. What can we expect from the crowds this season in terms of attendance? It feels like this team won Indiana over last year and we know Indiana loves it basketball!
8. If Turner and Sabonis cannot play together, do you think the Pacers should trade one of them to improve at another position (say point guard, small forward, power forward?
9. With our current cap situation and large amount of contracts coming to an end this year, do you expect Pritchard to be active on the trade market?
10. Can Vic take another step and average 25+ points and prove himself to be a top two shooting guard in the league?
A. Wow. Homework on a Friday? It seems we have different definitions of "a few," but here goes:
1. I was surprised they didn't play together more. We had been told that experiment would continue this season, in greater volume, so we'll see. Kevin Pritchard brought it up at the season-ending press conference, so I'm expecting it will get a fair evaluation. Whether they can play together or not would seem to have major impact on future decisions.
2. Not if he starts with Turner. That move likely wouldn't occur this season, though, as I think Thad Young has a lock on it. Next year could be a different story. If Sabonis has the better season and the team doesn't prosper when he and Turner play together, it seems something will have to give.
3. McMillan keeps saying he wants to go with a nine-man rotation, but will try to find minutes for Leaf. The preseason was good for Leaf. He's a proven shooter. He'll always be a shooter. He'll shoot well at the Y when he's 50 years old. It's the non-shooting elements of the game that will determine his playing time. He rebounded well in the preseason. I wouldn't say too much of it was luck. He went after the ball. I'm always surprised how many players don't give themselves a chance to get easy rebounds, and easy rebound baskets. Leaf has more athleticism than many people think, and showed it. He might not get a lot of minutes this season, but could set himself up to be in the rotation next season.
4. I don't think Collison will have to play a lot of minutes, but I doubt he'll be held out of games when healthy. He averaged 29 minutes last season and likely won't go over that this season, but he'll want to stay sharp and maintain chemistry with the starters. I'm sure Cory Joseph will get a lot of minutes again; he averaged a career-high 27 minutes last season. Tyreke Evans, Aaron Holiday and Edmond Sumner also could get minutes at point guard, so there's plenty of depth there. Still, Collison is the starter – deservedly so – and will want to play starter minutes. If he has nagging injuries, they can sit him.
5. It will be difficult. As stated above, there's plenty of depth there. Although both looked good in the preseason, that's a different animal than the regular season. And, there's nothing that say a young player, no matter how promising, has to play a lot. I compare Holiday to Travis Best, who was drafted in 1995. Both were taken with the 23rd pick. Both were/are behind two veteran point guards. Best averaged three points a game as a rookie, and it's not out of the question that Holiday will do the same. That doesn't mean he's a bust. Best had a long career, mostly as a backup, and Holiday should do at least as well. Sumner also appears worthy, but it's much better for him to play a lot of minutes for Fort Wayne than scattered minutes for the Pacers. Besides, he's on a two-way contract, so he's limited to spending 45 days (minus travel days) with the Pacers.
6. Yes, It's certainly possible Turner make a jump this season without his scoring average going up significantly. There's plenty of scoring ability within the rotation, so Turner might not get enough shots to average 18 points or so. But he can rebound and defend better, and stretch the floor so teammates can get easy shots going to the basket. He looked more aggressive to me in the preseason, so that's a good start. He worked hard on his body in the offseason, so that's bound to pay off.
7. The Pacers averaged 16,051 fans last season, which ranked 27th in the NBA. I would expect the average to rise this season, given the enthusiasm among the fan base and heightened expectations. It might not be noticeable early in the season, other than the opener, but if they get off to a good start attendance should be strong going forward.
8. I think that has to be regarded as a possibility, but it will play itself out. Too early to have that discussion, really.
9. Kevin Pritchard has a history of being active with trades. He made a minor deal at every trade deadline with Portland. He didn't last season because the team was going well and some of the players went to him and asked him to stay put. But all those expiring contracts could provide him with ammunition in the upcoming season. Some losing team looking to rebuild might have a star player with a long-term contract to unload.
10. I think he'll be an improved player, but doubt he gets past 25 points a game. If so, that wouldn't necessarily be a good thing for the team. He's surrounded by scorers and needs to distribute. He's not a selfish player or person, so I don't expect that to be a problem. He likes having the ball and wants a high usage rate, but he wants to win, too. If he suspects he's hurting the team by shooting too much I'm sure he would back off – and McMillan would see to it that he does. It's hard to project him being one of the two best shooting guards in the league, but it's possible. Keep in mind, he was first-team all-defense last season. That separates him from most of those who score more points. If he plays better against double teams this season, he'll be one of the elites, for sure.
Now, excuse me while I go fill out an overtime request form. And, thanks for your interest!
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