For Pacers, Finding Value in the Late Lottery Has Been the Ticket
They are the foundation of the Pacers' roster today, and, presumably, tomorrow as well. They are testaments to trusting the draft process and conducting due diligence. And, they are a valid argument against tanking.
Paul George and Myles Turner are the pretty much the pride and joy of the Pacers' current decade, which will be recognized during Tuesday's game against Toronto at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Both were drafted late in the lottery — 10th and 11th, respectively — and both were courageous choices. Both were better than their stats indicated at the time, and both have exceeded expectations.
Where would the Pacers be without them? What if Larry Bird had drafted Ed Davis instead of George in 2010, as he considered? Or, drafted anyone but Myles Turner in 2015? Most likely, it wouldn't be pretty.
Then again, the Pacers have a history of settling comfortably in that neighborhood of the draft. They selected Reggie Miller with the 11th pick in 1987, Dale Davis with the 13th pick in 1991 and Austin Croshere with the 12th pick in 1997. They got one-time All-Star Danny Granger with the 17th pick in 2005, and got two-time All-Star Roy Hibbert with the 17th pick in 2008.
It doesn't always work out that well, of course, but it has often enough that the Pacers aren't afraid to draft in that area, as they could again this year. George and Turner likely would be top three picks if their classes were redrafted with the benefit of hindsight. While some drafts present obvious can't-miss talents early in the draft, all of them offer traps in the form of well-publicized, talented players who have fundamental flaws that prevent them from having successful careers.
How did the Pacers know to draft George and Turner? It wasn't as easy as it might have looked.
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George had been a lightly-recruited high school player who wound up at Fresno State, his best offer. He averaged 16.8 points and 7.2 rebounds his sophomore season and showed NBA athleticism. But his team finished just 15-18, and partly because of the lack of talent surrounding him he took a lot of questionable shots and averaged more turnovers than assists. He earned second-team all-league honors in the Western Athletic Conference, but still managed to catch the eye of NBA scouts.
One of them was the Pacers' Brian Winters, who passed on his scouting report to scouting director Ryan Carr.
"I remember talking to (Winters) and him bringing (George) up," Carr recalled. "He said, 'Look, he as a chance to be a lot better than what his stats show.'"
Carr made the trip to watch George play in person and saw him have one of his best games after coming off an injury. That set in motion a full-fledged investigation of George and his game, leading up to draft night. George moved up draft boards as he worked out for teams, but he remained an uncertain commodity on draft night.
"Paul showed a tremendous amount of potential, but you never knew he would turn out to be this good," Carr said. "He had all the makings to be very good. He was a good kid, from a great family, he worked hard, basketball meant a lot to him, and he had worked for everything he had gotten to that point. He had done everything in the process to check off every box."
Still, the Pacers were well-stocked with wing players at the time, with four former first-round picks already on the roster: Granger, Tyler Hansbrough, Brandon Rush and Dahntay Jones. They were in need of a point guard, and an Indianapolis Star poll before the draft indicated a strong desire among the fans to draft a point guard or trade the pick for an established one.
It was a crucial pick, obviously. The Pacers hadn't drafted that high since taking Erick Dampier with the 10th pick in 1996. Team president Larry Bird has stated he was still deciding between George and North Carolina forward Ed Davis as he drove downtown for the draft day proceedings, and didn't tip his hand officially until he made the call when the Pacers' turn came around.
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Ultimately, George's athleticism and potential won the day.
"We all get a chance to say our opinion, but when you deal with a scouting staff there's a lot of different opinions and he takes all that in and makes the decision," Carr said. "Larry's not a guy who's going to tell a lot of people what he's going to do beforehand.
"If you were wanting someone who could help you win right away, I don't know if you would have gone that direction, but for a long-term plan and who could be the best player over time, Paul seemed like the right pick."
It's turned out that way. None of the players drafted after George have come close to matching his accomplishments in the NBA. Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry and Davis (who is averaging 4.3 points and 5.3 rebounds for his fourth NBA team, Portland) were drafted immediately after him. Current Pacers center Kevin Seraphin went 17th. Probably the most successful of the players selected after George is Avery Bradley, who went 19th to Boston.
Turner seemed an even bigger gamble coming out of the University of Texas after his freshman season.
He had averaged 10 points a game for a team that lost to Butler in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He came off the bench and scored two points in that game, hitting 1-of-5 shots. He grabbed 10 rebounds, but also had four fouls and four turnovers in 16 minutes. Over his final five college games, he totaled just 22 points while hitting 10-of-28 shots.
It hardly seemed like a prelude to an NBA career, but Turner knew what Pacers scouts had known from watching him throughout the season – in both games and practice. Pat Knight had scouted him the most often, and Carr and Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard had made the trip to Austin as well.
"Once the season started, you weren't necessarily getting to see what you saw in practice," Carr said. "It didn't seem like he was playing with a lot of confidence. We kept doing our research. Again, he was a great kid, from a great family, a hard worker who lived in the gym and really wanted to be a great player.
"A lot of (scouts) didn't get to see what we saw in practice, but we watched all the film, started talking about what we saw and how we thought he's better than what he's shown, how much upside there is."
Like George, Turner elevated his stock in the pre-draft process. He got with a trainer to improve his mobility and ease the concerns about his running form, and worked his way up draft boards in workouts with teams. The Pacers brought him in along with Frank Kaminsky, a four-year player at Wisconsin who had been voted the national Player of the Year by some outlets. They were matched up against one another in a halfcourt scrimmage, and Turner more than held his own.
He also impressed with his raw size. He was three years younger than Kaminsky, but clearly had a body more suited for the NBA. And, he was just 19 years old.
He made an immediate impression on Donnie Walsh, the Pacers' former team president now working as a consultant.
"Holy ----," Walsh muttered as Turner walked into the gym.
"What's wrong?" someone sitting nearby asked.
"I had no idea this guy was that big a presence," Walsh said.
Turner also impressed that day with his maturity and intelligence.
"I think everybody went away seeing what Pat first saw in those practices, and what was hidden a little bit in the games," Carr said.
It's not always that easy, though. Carr can recall seeing draft prospects who never really made it in the NBA outplay future All-Stars in pre-draft workouts. Teams have the task of compiling as much information as possible and then making what amounts to an educated guess.
"It's not about mock drafts, it's not about public opinion, it's about making the right decision for the team," Carr said. "Sometimes that isn't the guy everybody has seen play a hundred times on TV, but it's the right play for us."
The rest of the 2015 draft doesn't cause the Pacers' front office much second-guessing. Trey Lyles, drafted immediately after Turner, has been spotty while playing off the bench in Utah. Devin Booker, taken 13th, shows great promise for Phoenix, but after that, it thins out quickly.
It's too early to pass judgment on all the players taken ahead of Turner, but so far he rates better than the 11th pick. Karl-Anthony Towns was the consensus choice for the No. 1 selection, and has lived up to expectations. Some of the next nine have played well, but no better than Turner: D'Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja, Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanual Mudiay, Stanley Johnson, Kaminsky, and Justice Winslow.
All in all, the Pacers likely wouldn't have gained anything by tanking. Just as they wouldn't have in 2010 when they drafted George, or in other drafts before that.
"Larry says we're going to try to win every game," Carr said. "For us, that's proven to be a good thing."
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