Pacers' Young Guns Remain Confident, Ready Despite Deep Rotation

Three practices into training camp, and it's already obvious the Pacers are dealing with congestion that could leave a few players feeling, at the very least, uncomfortable.

It's the same condition former coach Frank Vogel had to address last season, when he jokingly blamed team president Larry Bird for accumulating too much talent, only worse. This time around, Nate McMillan will have to be the one to look hard-working, productive players in the eye and tell them they can't play in many of the games.

The most typical playing rotation for an NBA team, excluding blowout games, consists of nine players, often less in the playoffs. McMillan prefers to stick with the norm, but has more than nine worthy players to fill those slots.

"We'll start with a nine-man rotation," he said following Monday's practice, "but if our guys are playing well, like a lot of them are right now, and they make me have to play 10 guys, then we'll play 10 guys. No one can get upset about (giving up) minutes if another guy is going out there and producing."

Even a 10-man rotation could feel restrictive. McMillan has, in his mind and the minds of most observers, at least a dozen players capable of contributing to a winning team. The starters are set for now: Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, Paul George, Thad Young and Myles Turner. McMillan has identified the four certain second unit members as Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles and Al Jefferson.

That leaves Glenn Robinson III, Joe Young, Georges Niang, Kevin Seraphin, Lavoy Allen, Rakeem Christmas, and Jeremy Evans – in roughly that order – on the bench or inactive. Evans is still recovering from shoulder surgery and won't be available during the preseason, a trade could always reduce the field of contenders, and injuries are bound to occur at various points of the seasons. But the bottom line overcrowding issue likely will remain the same. Robinson, Young, and Niang in particular have impressed during the summer and in the early training camp workouts, while Seraphin (31) and Allen (72) have started plenty of games in their NBA careers and have at least proven themselves capable as reserves.

In the best of all worlds, the depth leads to intense battles for playing time that improves everyone's play and provides capable replacements when injuries occur. In the worst of worlds, it leads to complaints and dissension that eats at the core of a team's framework.

At this early stage for the Pacers it has led to competitive practices, as the third five-man unit has won its share of competitive drills and scrimmages.

"Coach Nate definitely has a tough decision with these young guys challenging us," Paul George said following Wednesday's workout, the only one of the day. "They're winning games. It's not like we're looking at a third group that's a whatever team, it's a group that's winning games when we're competing. Their confidence is high, they're working well together. You can tell they put the work in."

It amounts to one of those "problems" that will have to play itself out and be addressed as time goes along. The most immediate challenge for McMillan will be determining what to do with Robinson and Young, who showed sparks of productivity last season and followed up with diligent summers that brought improvement. It was telling that George, when asked on Monday who stood out during the pre-training camp scrimmages, immediately mentioned those two players, just minutes after McMillan had listed them as out of the playing rotation.

That can always change. McMillan had high praise for both of them on Wednesday.

"I told them a couple of times, I really love where (they) are at," he said.

Robinson's primary obstacle, as it has been dating back to his college days at Michigan, is confidence and assertiveness. He doesn't need to be reminded, as he repeatedly brought up those qualities without prompting on Wednesday.

"My overall confidence has improved," he said. "Aggressiveness, being in attack mode every possession, that's something I really worked on."

Robinson – fighting for minutes as a backup wing – was surprised to hear McMillan identify his starters and rotation players so specifically before training camp began, but is ready to take on the challenge of forcing change.

"I don't know if I agree with that," he said. "If it was me, I'd pick the starting five and let everybody else battle it out. That's what training camp and preseason is for. But I'm going to keep my same mentality and stay aggressive and stay confident in my game and come out here every day going at guys. I want to take somebody's spot.

"A lot of things happen during the season."

He knows that from experience. He stood out during the preseason a year ago, but an injury delayed his progress once the regular season began. He wound up playing in 45 games and showed flashes of promise, such as in a 17-point outing against Milwaukee, but he didn't take advantage of his best opportunity. Starting four consecutive games on a January road trip, he averaged just 5.5 points on 29 percent shooting while playing 19 minutes per game.

It was a shining example of his need to be more confident and assertive.

"I could have been a lot more aggressive," he said. "You don't necessarily get those opportunities all the time. I'm looking forward to this year, and when my opportunity comes I'm not going to shy away from it. I'm just going to face the challenges. I can't make every shot but I'm going to go out and play hard. It will be a big year for me."

The same goes for Young, who a year ago led the Orlando Summer League in scoring and earned team president Larry Bird's prediction that he would be in the playing rotation, but then only had a few standout moments during the regular season. Young averaged 3.8 points in 41 appearances, but offered slivers of hope. He had productive games such as a 16-point, eight-assist outing at Golden State and averaged 24.3 points while hitting 7-of-11 3-pointers in a three-game stint with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in the Development League.

Say this for Young: he oozes ambition. He volunteers that he plans to become one of the top five point guards in the NBA – quite a goal for a second-round draft pick.

"If I put the work in, anything's possible," he said. "I just have to keep working."

He's kept working. His summer routine, proven by his social media posts, was to get up at 4 a.m. and begin working out at 5 a.m, whether he was in Indianapolis, China or back home in Houston. It was his way of outworking LeBron James.

"That was just my mindset, to get an extra hour on LeBron," he said. "I heard LeBron was getting up at 5:30 or 6, so I was like, 'You know what, let me get up an extra hour on LeBron.' It motivated me."

Young's dedication paid off Tuesday night, when McMillan put his players through a conditioning test. Each one had to run four lengths of the floor within a certain cutoff time, and do it five times with a two-minute break between sprints. The time limit for point guards was 60 seconds. Young finished in an average of 52 seconds, easily the fastest of all the players.

"He was running like a gazelle," George said.

He's not training for a track meet, however. To get playing time, he'll need to be physically stronger than last season (he already is), play better defense, shoot better than the 22 percent he shot from the 3-point line, and play like a skilled quarterback.

He believes he's doing those things so far.

"It feels way different than last year," he said.

Unless an injury creates an opening, however, he'll have to beat out eight-season veteran Aaron Brooks for backup minutes. He realizes the difficulty of accomplishing that, but also recognizes the value in waiting his turn.

"Earning playing time is one thing," he said. "Another thing is waiting for the opportunity and just getting better. If I'm not playing in 20 games, 30 games, I have to make sure I get my conditioning in, have great practices and keep my composure...just the little things to show I'm experienced and I'm here for the team."

He plans to stay motivated, though. Having a chip on his shoulder won't be enough for him.

"It's like I've got a couple bags of chips on my shoulder," he said.

He could share one with Robinson while they're waiting. They're both hungry, anxious and waiting for an opening to pounce on.

“We're in the same situation," Young said. "The team likes us, we put the work in, we aren't late to nothing, we're doing what they want us to do. All we have to do is keep working. They're not going to forget about us."


Myles Turner continued to miss practice while undergoing the NBA's mandatory concussion protocol. McMillan said he hopes Turner can at least attend practice on Thursday ... McMillan said not all of the players completed Tuesday night's conditioning test in the mandatory cutoff times. "We have a few guys who have to do a little extra cardio, but not many," he said. He declined to identify them, however. "I won't put them out there like that," he said. "I wouldn't want them to do me like that." ... Although Young was the fastest player in the conditioning test, George said he thought he would win if the players ran a 100-meter sprint. "Then a close second would be Jeff (Teague) and Joe would be right behind him," George said.

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