Scouting the NBA Draft is a multi-year process and every prospect has their own unique journey to the league. Teams track a player's progress for years before ultimately picking them on draft night. There are so many unseen moments, games, and interactions along the way that play a part in a front office coming to the conclusion that "This is our guy."
The Pacers have been tracking Jarace Walker since he was a decorated high school recruit at IMG Academy and through his freshman season at the University of Houston. But it was his visit to Indiana weeks ago where he really formed a connection with the franchise, bonding with head coach Rick Carlisle over Italian food and jazz and then impressing in a pre-draft workout.
When Indiana scouts first noticed Ben Sheppard at the 2020 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, no one would have guessed that he would be an NBA draft pick. He was wrapping up a freshman season where he came off the bench and averaged 2.9 points per game. But with steady improvement over the next three years, Sheppard ultimately grew into a first round pick.
Their journeys couldn't be more different, but both Walker and Sheppard are now Pacers rookies. Indiana acquired Walker, who went eighth overall in last night's draft, in a trade to be finalized later. The Blue & Gold then selected Sheppard with the 26th overall pick, adding two more talented young pieces to an up-and-coming Indiana team.
They may have taken different paths to this point, but Walker and Sheppard share several qualities that are priorities for the Pacers: playmaking, defensive focus, and versatility, as well as high character.
"These were two guys we had targeted a long, long time ago," Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan said at Walker and Sheppard's introductory press conference on Friday afternoon at the Ascension St. Vincent Center. "And to walk away with both of them last night felt like a huge, huge victory for us."
Walker's selection was likely confusing for Pacers fans that weren't following closely along on NBA Twitter on Thursday night. Indiana had the seventh overall pick and Walker seemed like a strong possibility for the Pacers when they went on the clock, but Indiana wound up selecting French guard Bilal Coulibaly.
Washington, picking next, then took Walker. But the Wizards were actually making the pick for the Pacers and Indiana had taken Coulibaly for the Wizards. A short while later, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that the two teams had agreed in principle to a trade to swap picks, with Indiana picking up future compensation in a deal to be finalized at a later date.
So while Walker briefly wore a Wizards hat, he was really a Pacer all along, which is exactly what he wanted.
It's hard to find a better fit for Walker than Indiana. The Pacers entered the offseason looking to make upgrades defensively, where they ranked 26th out of 30 teams last season in defensive rating, and to add talent at the power forward position, the one spot that they didn't have a true fit last year, often deploying undersized wings like Aaron Nesmith at the position.
Enter Walker, a physical specimen at 6-8, 240 pounds that Buchanan said Friday "looks like a linebacker" and was a valuable part of a top-five ranked defense as a true freshman at Houston.
"Jarace is a player we feel can guard multiple players, multiple positions," Buchanan said. "Very defensive-minded. As we got to know him in the pre-draft process, I think that's where he views himself, as a defender first, which is a great trait for what our team needs."
When Walker visited for an individual workout on June 7, the Pacers put his defense to the test, tasking him with guarding player development coach Jannero Pargo. Pargo is 43 now, but the 6-1 guard is an 11-year NBA veteran and still has plenty of game, creating quite the challenge for a bigger player like Walker to stick with him one-on-one.
Walker held his own with Pargo, in what Buchanan called "the sealer" in realizing that he was the right fit for the Pacers.
"I'm sure Jarace wanted to punch him by the end of the workout, but you saw his competitive juices come out," Buchanan said. "And I think at that point, we were like, 'This is our guy.'"
The night before that workout, Walker went out to dinner with Carlisle, assistant general manager Kelly Krauskopf, and Vice President of Basketball Operations Ted Wu. They took Walker to Iaria's, then Carlisle drove him back to the team facility to give him a tour. Walker said on Friday that they quickly developed a rapport, listening to jazz in the car as they drove around the city.
"Me and coach were kicking it for a little bit," Walker said. "So just the connection we kind of built in such a little time, I just felt like it was definitely the right city and the right place for me."
Indiana Pacers: Jarace Walker And Ben Sheppard Introductory Press Conference (June 23, 2023)
Walker is just 19 years old, but should fit right in with a talented young Pacers team that features 23-year-old All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton and 21-year-old Bennedict Mathurin, a first-team All-Rookie selection last season. Walker could slot right in at power forward and provide a nice defensive compliment in the front court to center Myles Turner, one of the league's top rim protectors, while also adding different dimensions to what is already one of the NBA's best offenses.
Walker was the American Athletic Conference's Freshman of the Year last season, averaging 11.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.8 assists on one of the best teams in the NCAA.
"I feel like we have a fast-paced team, get up and down the floor," Walker said. "High IQ guys, a lot of shot-makers. Obviously we've got great rim protectors in Myles (Turner) and Stix (Jalen Smith).
"I feel like we have a bunch of pieces. I feel like what I bring to the table is exactly what this team was missing. Just an extra defender, extra rebounder, extra shot creator. Just somebody that brings a little bit of everything to the table."
Walker isn't wasting any time getting ready for his rookie season. Carlisle revealed that Buchanan texted him Friday morning saying that Walker had asked if he could work out in the afternoon after his press conference.
"I think we can oblige you on that," Carlisle quipped.
Sheppard visited Indiana for his own pre-draft workout the day after Walker. He competed in a group workout that included decorated college guards like Kansas State's Markquis Nowell, UCLA's Tyger Campbell, and Kansas' Jalen Wilson.
Sheppard may have played in more obscurity at Belmont, but he developed into a true NBA prospect over the past three years. He took on a larger role each year, becoming a starter and averaging 10.5 points as a sophomore, taking on a primary scoring role and averaging 16.2 points as a junior, and then enjoying his best year as a senior, when he averaged 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.9 assists.
The 6-6 wing is an outstanding shooter who grew more efficient even as his role increased each season. He shot 27.9 percent from 3-point range as a freshman, 32.8 percent as a sophomore, 37.1 percent as a junior, and 41.5 percent as a senior.
The 21-year-old Sheppard is a versatile player who can play either wing position and even handled the point at times in college. The combination of his shooting prowess and his ability to guard multiple positions have had Pacers scouts "pounding the table on (Sheppard) for two years" according to Buchanan.
"He's kind of a little off the radar maybe to some people, but he's a player that's got better and better with each year at Belmont," Buchanan said. "A guy that just moves without the ball, knows how to play without the ball, is a high-level shooter."
Like Walker, Sheppard said he felt an instant connection during his pre-draft visit with the Pacers. When he got the call that he was headed to Indiana, it felt like it was meant to be.
"It's still surreal," Sheppard said. "It still hasn't really hit me yet. But throughout this whole process, I just tried to prove myself in any workout and whenever there was eyes on me. I knew in my workout with Indiana that this is an organization that I'd love to play for."
Culturally, Sheppard and Walker both seem like ideal fits in an already tight-knit Pacers locker room. Haliburton's energetic personality and overt love for the game have set the foundation there and Walker -- with his mention of "good vibes" -- and Sheppard -- with a million-watt grin that was voted "Best Smile" in his high school yearbook -- are seemingly solid additions.
"They just have an infectious spirit when they play," Carlisle said. "...(These are) the kind of players that we're adding to this organization. Guys that love the game, that play the game with a pure heart, with an infectious spirit, and that are versatile and just have fun playing the game of basketball."