Telephones Rang in Favor of Bitadze

Some of the social media and professional media criticism has been harsh, while most of the national draft analysis has been mildly positive. But to Kevin Pritchard's way of thinking, the most meaningful feedback regarding his draft decision on Thursday was the jangling telephones.

Moments after it was announced the Pacers had dedicated their 18th overall selection in the NBA draft in Goga Bitadze, the phones in their war room began clamoring for attention. Teams were calling, wanting to investigate the possibility of acquiring the 6-11 center from the Republic of Georgia.

"You know how we know it's a good pick?" Pritchard asked on Friday, when Bitadze was introduced at a press conference in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

"The phone rings the second you pick him. I've never had it ringing like I had it yesterday. Maybe some of the ex-teams I've been with were pretty hotly in pursuit. Not a little bit, but hotly in pursuit. I've never seen it like that."

One of Pritchard's former employers, San Antonio, drafted one spot behind the Pacers, and had worked out Bitadze. Another, Portland, drafted 25th. Pritchard said there were others as well.

"Let's just say more than three or four teams were getting aggressive to get him," he said.

The Pacers had no expectation of landing Bitadze before the draft began, according to Pritchard and coach Nate McMillan. He didn't appear on their ranking of realistic prospects because they thought he would be taken by one of the lottery teams. But as the evening proceeded and his name wasn't called, their interest perked up.

Pritchard said he was considering making a deal to move up a few spots to get his man, but when Bitadze fell past Boston at 14 and Detroit at 15, he was confident of being able to snag the 19-year-old center at 18. If the reaction in the outside world was mixed, the feedback within the front office was consistent.

"Very rarely do you get to a point where the scouts and the consultants and Larry (Bird) and Donnie (Walsh) agree on anything," Pritchard said.

"It was the easiest decision I've ever made in the draft. There was more consensus than I've ever seen."

Negative reaction to the selection of Bitadze related to the fact the Pacers already have a pair of young and established 6-foot-11 players in Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. With a widespread desire for Sabonis to receive more playing time, why add a third similar player?

Pritchard swatted that one away quickly. Turner and Sabonis both have shown signs of being able to play either center or power forward. Bitadze is expected to back up either one of them at center. And if it turns out Turner and Sabonis can play together more often next season, perhaps even as starters, then the need for a supplement grows.

Ninety-six combined minutes are available at power forward and center, so it doesn't seem likely Bitadze will be left out of the rotation. And however it plays out, Pritchard emphasized he's not looking to move any of the three big men anytime soon.

"Can all three of these guys exist?" Pritchard said. "There's no doubt. I'm not in the business of making a pick to move that guy. I want him as a Pacer and I want to see how he turns out.

"I love the fact that Domas has grown up a Pacer, except for one year (in Oklahoma City). Myles has grown up a Pacer and has become a really good player. And they're both 23. I want this kid to be a Pacer. I did not pick him to gather an asset."

Coach Nate McMillan, meanwhile, is pondering ways to keep them all involved.

"I've been thinking about it all night long, and will continue to think about it throughout the summer," he said.

Goga Bitadze

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

For Pritchard, it boiled down to choosing for talent rather than need. With so many roster spots to fill once the free agency signing period begins in July, the Pacers weren't in a position to focus on need on draft night. It's too early to know their greatest needs. Besides, Pritchard has learned some hard lessons from some of his past mistakes.

"If you get caught up in, 'I've got to get a position there,' you can make a lot of mistakes," he said. "Free agency is where you can plug some holes."

Given the acquisition of another big man, Pritchard and McMillan say they're willing to buck the NBA trend of going small and leaning mostly heavily on the 3-point shot for offense.

Finding shooters will be a primary goal in free agency, but they believe they can win with two big men on the court at the same time and posing matchup problems for opponents.

"Everybody thinks it's all about going small; I'm not sure that's the way," Pritchard said. "I want somebody who plays hard and protects the rim, and Goga does that."

"We're going to play to our strengths," McMillan said. "If that's two bigs out there on the floor and pounding inside, we'll take advantage of that.

"Some teams are not cut out (to shoot a lot of 3-pointers). Last night it changed for us."

Bitadze has an impressive personal story worth telling, and one that will be told in the days ahead. He grew up in Georgia when it was occupied for a short time by Russia, amid poverty. Basketball became a refuge, and he took to it quickly. He turned professional the summer he turned 16 and had to grow up quickly away from his close-knit family.

He watched NBA highlights when he could, and took particular notice of the Pacers two years ago, when they lost to Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs. Asked by Pritchard what he knew of the franchise when they had lunch before Thursday's press conference, Bitadze brought up the lack of a goaltending call against LeBron James late in Game 5 that assisted the Cavaliers' victory.

"They caught my eye because they were playing like one team; like a family," Bitadze said of the Pacers. "I could see that in their games they were playing really tough and were out there competing and having fun. It was great series and it was really disappointing, because refs I think made bad call. It was heartbreaking.

"I watch a lot of NBA but they caught my eye, definitely."

Bitadze proved his background knowledge of the Pacers at the end of the press conference, when forward Alize Johnson, who spent most of last season playing for the Fort Wayne affiliate in the G League, grabbed a microphone while seated in the front row.

"Have you heard anything about Alize Johnson?" he asked, smiling.

Bitadze played into it.

"Actually, yeah, he's a legend in (Indianapolis), EuroLeague also," he said. "Everywhere you go you see his jersey over there."

Should the Pacers' trend-bucking move pay off, sightings of Bitadze Pacers jerseys will become common, too.

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