Most NBA fans were introduced to Goga Bitadze by a sympathy-invoking photograph. Now Pacers fans will get to know him for his performance.
The Pacers selected the 6-foot-11 center from the Republic of Georgia with the 18th pick in Thursday's NBA draft, convinced enough of his talent and potential to add him to a roster already featuring two established 6-foot-11 players, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
Most mock drafts projected Bitadze to be selected before the Pacers' turn came in the first round, some as high as 12th. The Pacers had him in their top 10, according to President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard.
"To be honest, I'm sitting here and I can't believe he got to 18," Pritchard said. "We had him really high on our board."
Pritchard said one team drafting ahead of the Pacers was determined to draft Bitadze, but a trade changed that and made him available to the Pacers.
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Pritchard emphasized Bitadze can co-exist on a roster with Turner and Sabonis, both of whom can play either center or power forward. Bitadze logically would assume the backup center position occupied by Kyle O'Quinn last season, but could get significant backup minutes if Turner and Sabonis are able to play together more often than last season. Given his physique (245 pounds, five more than Sabonis), and experience playing professionally in Europe, Bitadze is regarded as NBA-ready.
"I don't think there's any doubt that he can play next year," Pritchard said. "The league he plays in is a league of men. That is a no-joke league. It's better than a G League. It's a higher level across the board than a good college team."
"He's not a project," Pacers coach Nate McMillan added.
Bitadze has played professional since 2016. He was voted the Most Valuable Player of the Adriatic League last season when he averaged 14 points on 60 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks in 30 games. He also played four games in the Serbian League and finished his season with 13 games in the highest level of play in Europe, the EuroLeague. He averaged 12.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks in those games and was voted the Rising Star award winner by the league coaches.
He is regarded as a two-way player, equally capable at either end. He averaged 2.3 blocked shots in the EuroLeague and at times has been an effective 3-point shooter. He hit 41 percent of his attempts in 52 Adriatic League games.
The shot-blocking stood out to the Pacers.
"He's really long," Pritchard said. "He affects the game above the rim. We really value that."
The Pacers traded their second-round pick, the 50th overall selection, to Utah for a future second-rounder. They also were reported to be involved in two other transactions, neither of which Pritchard could discuss until they become official in July.
"We acquired quite a few things," Pritchard said.
"Some other things happened, but I don't think I can quite talk about it yet."
Bitadze worked out for just five NBA teams — San Antonio, Charlotte, Detroit, Boston, and Atlanta — but the Pacers had followed him closely. Pritchard, general manager Chad Buchanan, and the Pacers' international scouts — Aleksandar Pajovic and Jose Galilea — all scouted Bitadze in person.
Most NBA observers, however, are unfamiliar with him. His greatest exposure came from a photo distributed on social media in which he sat alone at a table during a pre-draft media availability while No. 1 pick Zion Williamson was surrounded by a crowd of reporters in the background.
Many people expressed compassion for him, but he said Thursday he had finished his interviews when the photo was taken and felt no embarrassment.
"Even if nobody came to ask me a question it doesn't bother me at all," he said. "It gives me more energy, it makes me more hungry."
Reporters inevitably ask for comparisons for first-round draft picks, and Bitadze drew a few. McMillan mentioned Sabonis. Galilea brought up Turner. Pritchard referred to Orlando center Nikola Vucevic, but added that Bitadze "plays above the rim."
Bitadze will be in Indianapolis on Friday for an introductory press conference. Pritchard and his staff, meanwhile, will now turn their full attention to the upcoming free agency period. They can begin contacting players and making offers to agents at 6 p.m. on June 30. Seven significant players from last season — Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Tyreke Evans, Wesley Matthews, and Kyle O'Quinn — have expired contracts and need to be replaced or re-signed.
"We get really excited about the draft, but where you really get the players is in free agency," Pritchard said.
"We have a lot of holes to fill. We've got to make some hay in free agency."
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