Only three of the veteran players did not attend the Pacers' annual golf outing at Brickyard Crossing on Wednesday, but one of them was a strong presence amid his excused absence.
Victor Oladipo, who continues to work out in Miami to rehabilitate the torn quad muscle he suffered last season, was the most talked-about player for obvious reasons. It can safely be reported he is progressing well. But nobody has a prediction for when he'll return to game action.
Coach Nate McMillan spent a couple of days with Oladipo early this month, and Oladipo worked out for a couple of days in the St. Vincent Center practice facility last week. Nobody was left discouraged by what they saw.
"He's doing great," McMillan said. "He's not playing live, but he's moving and he's in a good position mentally. I like what I see with him."
The Pacers open training camp on Saturday, Sept. 28. Oladipo will be on hand and participate as much as he's allowed, but nothing is certain beyond that.
"I just know that the 23rd of October (when the Pacers open their season against Detroit) he probably won't be there," McMIllan said. "But the time frame, honestly, we have no idea."
Oladipo has been in touch with teammates throughout the summer, particularly his future backcourt mate, Malcolm Brogdon, who was acquired in a trade with Milwaukee in July. Brogdon said he texts with Oladipo every couple of weeks. They worked out together in Las Vegas during Summer League play. They also planned to get together in Miami but were not able to coordinate their schedules.
Oladipo has not participated in the scrimmages at St. Vincent Center, nor have Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, who played in the FIBA World Cup in China. All of the other players under contract have done so.
It's only natural for players to speak positively of pre-training camp sessions, but there seems to be an added degree of optimism generated by the workouts so far. The players are playing best-of-five and best-of-seven series, with games to 15. Each game has to be ended by a made foul shot, so if the free throw is missed the game continues. The coaches have picked the squads, mixing and matching lineups.
"This is a super-competitive team," Brogdon said. "People play hard on both ends. You don't see that with all NBA teams, where everybody wants to push themselves on the defensive end as well. It's encouraging."
"We've got a bunch of good dudes who work extremely hard and are coachable," free agent acquisition T.J. McConnell said. "That's all you can ask for. It's cool to see everyone want to be here and be excited and want to get better every day."
"Everybody's really humble and we bring the hardhat to work every day," another free agent, JaKarr Sampson said. "There's great energy in the gym."
Most players hesitated to single out a teammate for playing surprisingly or exceptionally well when asked about the scrimmages. McConnell, however, put in a word for Brogdon.
"He's really good," McConnell said. "Physical freak, great teammate, all the things you want from one of your star players. He's going to be really good for us."
Brogdon passed on a compliment of his own.
"I think T.J.'s taken a step this summer," he said. "He's been dominating in pickup, playing really well."
Brogdon was referring to third-year forward TJ Leaf, one of three T.J.'s on the roster, joined by McConnell and T.J. Warren.
So far, it hasn't been determined who will get to answer to the initials.
"We've been trying to figure it out," Warren said. "It's just really weird, hearing 'T.J.' and everybody turns their head. As the season goes on, I'm pretty sure we'll figure it out. I just turn my head regardless."
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
Goga Fitting In
McConnell was conducting an interview with a small group or reporters before play began on Wednesday when a newcomer stuck his phone/recorder into the huddle.
"No comment," McConnell said, looking up at first-round draft pick Goga Bitadze.
"I have a question. What do you know about the Republic of Georgia?" Bitadze said, referring to his native country.
"Not a thing. Just that you and Zaza Pachulia are from there," McConnell said.
"You don't know anything about your teammate's country?" Bitadze asked with mock disappointment.
"No. What can you tell me about Pittsburgh, Pennsylania?" McConnell asked. "That's where I'm from."
"Uh. Not much," Bitadze said.
"That's what I thought," McConnell said.
Bitadze's natural sense of humor has been evident since his introductory press conference. It likely will endear him to his teammates, but also make him the butt of many jokes. Such as when McConnell was asked his impressions of the 6-foot-11, 20-year-old center.
"Really soft, can't really shoot it, bad teammate," McConnell said, for Bitadze's benefit.
"No, actually the complete opposite of all those," McConnell added.
Bitadze missed Summer League play because a working visa could not be obtained in time but has made a positive early impression. Teammates have praised his upbeat and outgoing personality, as well as his performance in the scrimmages. He hasn't had to go up against Turner and Sabonis, matching up with smaller players instead, but has shown strength and versatility.
"He's talented," Brogdon said. "There's a learning curve with all rookies. Goga, he's got stuff you can't teach. Touch. He's light on his feet. He moves well. And he has an energy about him that keeps things fun. He's a funny guy. I think he has a lot of stuff going for him that's going to make him a good pro."
McMillan, who works with players in drills but doesn't monitor the scrimmages closely, also likes what he's seen.
"His IQ is very high for a (20-year-old)," McMillan said. "He can shoot it, he can put it on the floor, he can pass it. He goes after everything as far as blocking shots. He's shown some good things since returning early in August."
Added Warren: "I like Goga a lot. He's very, very, very fundamentally sound. He has really good hands, really athletic, good feel for the game."
Lamb a New Man
Free agent signee Jeremy Lamb wore a black hat that read "Dad" to the outing. He's the father of a daughter born earlier this summer, experiencing the joys and tribulations of all men going through the experience for the first time.
"It's different," Lamb said. "Me and my lady are learning together.
"It's good, though. Sometimes you don't sleep, she's just crying and you don't understand what's going on. But it's all worth it. Everything is going smoothly for the most part. She's healthy and that's all I can ask."
Lamb said fatherhood has altered his perspective on many things, basketball included.
"Some people say having the ball late in the game is pressure. No. Having your lady push that baby out and then trying to get her to stop crying on the plane, that's pressure," he said.
"A lot of the things I thought mattered don't matter."
Basketball will continue to matter, but in a different way.
"It will affect me in a good way, being able to play for my daughter," said Lamb, a seven-year veteran who averaged a career-high 15.3 points for Charlotte last season.
"When you have a bad game, she's not going to care. That's going to help me realize (it's about the) next play. You can always come back the next game and do better. Just playing for her and worrying about my family instead of some of the things I worried about."
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