by Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, October 28, 2002 - For a guy who didn't have a role when he came to the Pacers eight months ago, Ron Mercer suddenly has become invaluable.
With Reggie Miller out for at least one week and possibly much longer with a bone bruise in his right ankle, Mercer will assume a much more prominent role in the offense. Though coach Isiah Thomas has not revealed who will start in Miller's place at shooting guard, Mercer is the likely choice. He started all eight preseason games and led the team in minutes played (33.4) while averaging 12.1 points.
"I’m ready to go," Mercer said. "I’m excited to be here from the beginning of the season."
Mercer was the unknown entity when the Pacers made their seven-player trade with Chicago last February. Center Brad Miller and small forward Ron Artest quickly became starters. Kevin Ollie served as a solid backup to point guard Jamaal Tinsley, so enhancing his value he attracted a free-agent contract from Milwaukee in the offseason.
And Mercer? On the injured list with a right knee sprain at the time of the trade, he missed 11 of the first 12 games with his new team. Not long after his return in mid-March, he want down once again with back spasms. But he made his mark in the playoffs, scoring 20 points in the Game 5 loss to New Jersey to remind the Pacers of his ability.
He does, after all, have a career scoring average of 16.5, peaking at 19.7 in '00-01 with the Bulls. Though the numbers suggest he could produce comparable statistics to Miller, no one is pretending Mercer can replace him.
"It (Miller's absence) is going to hurt us a lot," Mercer said. "Everybody knows what he can do on the court but it’s leadership, as well. His presence out on the court, his leadership to tell us what to do and what not to do, that’s going to hurt us the most. The only way we can make that up is collectively as a team. One person’s not going to do it.
"That’s not really my job. My job is to do what I’m capable of doing, play defense and do the small things. No one can go out and do what Reggie can do. I can only do what I’m capable of doing."
Mercer is an effective mid-range shooter who has more one-on-one ability than Miller. What he doesn't possess, however, is the 3-point threat. For his career, Mercer has averaged 43 attempts per season, hitting 26 percent. Miller is the NBA's all-time leader in 3-pointers attempted (5,536) and made (2,217).
"When (Miller) is on the floor, the other team and the other coaches always know where he’s at," said Thomas. "Consequently, you’re able to do a lot of other things just by standing him in the corner or at the top of the key. You automatically create spacing. No one else on our team commands that type of respect."
No one else has shown Miller's penchant for taking over in the closing moments of a close game, either. Asked what the team would miss most in Miller's absence, franchise President Donnie Walsh replied, "spacing on the floor, know-how, and the end of the game."
If Mercer does not start, Thomas could go with Ron Artest. But Artest also missed the full preseason while recovering from surgery on his right pinkie finger and has not yet been cleared to practice. Even if that clearance comes in the next day or two, he will have had precious little preparation time.
"Going into the season, we expected Reggie to be there with us but the ankle injury is really bothering him," Artest said. "I can’t wait till he gets better. I can’t wait till be gets back and can give us that energy he has. We expect to be a very good team this year and with Reggie out, everybody’s got to pick up the slack, big-time."