April 18, 2021, 2:02 pm
Welcome back, Hoop Ballers, to another installment of our International Spotlight feature where we will be taking a look into Georgian center Goga Bitadze, who has slowly played himself into the rotation for the emerging Indiana Pacers.
Rookie Struggles and the Rookie Wall
Bitadze only started playing basketball professionally in 2015 and quickly moved on to Serbian club Mega Basket where upon his arrival in 2017–18, he was named the MVP of the Junior ABA League and became a key player for the senior team. He was named a EuroLeague Rising Star in the 2018–19 season, commanding heavy attention from NBA scouts and leading to his selection as a first round pick (No. 18 overall) in 2019 by the Pacers.
His rookie season was an afterthought as he missed Summer League, typically the first major chance for rookies to play in NBA-level competition, due to visa issues. An ankle injury forced him to miss time in the preseason while he dealt with more injuries to that same ankle, his knee, and a concussion, failing to see much playing time and struggling mightily when that happened.
Bitadze had a hard time keeping up with the speed of the NBA game and he often got caught in no-man’s land on both ends of the floor, with opponents exposing his lack of athleticism and body frame. He was dominant in the G-League, averaging 19.2 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in just 6 games, showing that he’s clearly surpassed that level of play, so the next step was simply to earn rotation minutes.
Pacers with Major Changes
For a team that has been the gold standard for stability, the Pacers had quite the number changes this past offseason, first hiring a coach from outside the organization for the first time in over a decade (former Raptors assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren) and then losing longtime executive Donnie Walsh who decided to retire, while the cherry on top came when the team traded Victor Oladipo, one of the faces of the franchise, a month into the season.
When explaining the initial impact of Nate Bjorkgren’s arrival in a press release prior to the season, Kevin Pritchard emphasized his winning background, his championship success, his innovation and his communication skills along with his positivity. One of the major criticisms of former Pacers’ coach Nate McMillan was that he didn’t give his young players enough playing time, with rookies like Bitadze having shorter leashes than veterans.
Moreover, after over two decades of typically conservative but disciplined defense, cultivated by former assistant Dan Burke, the Pacers have embraced a more flexible and multi-look scheme. Bjorkgren though still plays to the strengths of his players and wants Goga to protect the paint with his verticality. The results have been extremely positive in recent weeks, with the 21-year-old showing some improved confidence and skill and meeting the likes of Zion Williamson, Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan at the rim. Here is Goga being active in drop coverage and keeping an eye on Zion, who attacks the rim but gets rejected on another impressive defensive play by the big man.
Those moments are reflective of the growth path Bitadze is on during his second year in the NBA as, since returning from an injury in mid-January, he has seen consistent action for the Pacers and appears to learn every time he hits the floor. He is averaging a career-high 1.2 blocks per game and his overall impact has gone up massively as opponents are starting to learn they just can’t drive the ball down the middle just because Myles Turner is on the bench.
Cheap fouls remain a bad habit but this is clearly an area that can be fixed with discipline and more reps. Here is veteran guard J.J Redick managing to draw the foul on a 3-point attempt with Goga falling for a simple pump fake.
A Much-Needed Offseason
On top of the struggles from the transition to a completely new environment, Bitadze hadn’t seen his family in over a year, a situation that weighed on the young center from Georgia. After a few weeks in his home country Goga came back focused and determined. With a year in the NBA under his belt Bitadze knew what the speed of the game required, and he cut down on his body fat, showing up as a renewed version of the player he was in his rookie season, working to overcome a lack of quickness and explosion. Here is an impressive possession where Bitadze first avoids the back screen that Will Barton is trying to set, squeezing through it to stay with Nikola Jokic and then forcing the turnover by PJ Dozier with active hands and movement that confuses the Nuggets.
The signs of progress are clear and in year two he’s able to read what is happening around him and make the necessary plays to help his team win, while Bjorkgren’s ability to build relationships with players has made Bitadze look much more like an NBA contributor. The Georgian center is already light years better as a screener than in his first season, when he seemed afraid to make contact and, instead, let defenders by him.
The scouting report on Goga coming into the draft was that he was going to have a hard time defending the pick-and-roll and this kind of coverage is still a work in progress for the big man who is learning how to adjust and avoid being targeted by opponents. Bitazde’s biggest issue is getting beaten away from ball screens, meaning the opposing ballhandler recognizes his lack of speed, rejects the screen and goes to the opposite side which is usually an open drive to the rim that eliminates the big man and his shot-blocking ability. Look at Yuta Watanabe identifying Bitadze’s lack of focus and quickly taking advantage of the situation by driving to the basket; Goga has to sprint in order to get back and at least he manages to foul the Japanese forward.
Offense Still a Work in Progress
Despite his improvements on the defensive side of the ball, the Pacers offense is still weak with the second-year center on the floor, with Bjorkgren still figuring out the right rotation for his bench guys. Bitadze was regarded as an above average shooter prior to being drafted, but his 3-pointer hasn’t materialized in the NBA with him hitting just 24 percent of his shots behind the arc. It appears that he has the green light to shoot but I’ve often noticed a quick release that turns out to be a bad offensive decision so I would think that Goga is still behind on balancing the need for spacing and his shot selection.
Here is a possession that I’m quite sure drove Bjorkgren crazy; Bitazde is in a pick-and-roll situation with T.J. McConnell and instead of driving to the basket against Chris Boucher he reluctantly takes a couple steps back and shoots a contested 3-pointer that barely makes the front of the rim.
The Pacers’ second unit in recent weeks has Goga, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, Aaron Holiday and Doug McDermott playing together. The shooting with this unit is suspect, often causing the offense to become stagnant, but the Pacers have been running on fast break opportunities and are currently tied in the first place with the Grizzlies with 16.0 points per game, up from just 12.8 per game last year. Bitazde’s ability to keep up with the pace(rs) is crucial to him getting minutes that will help his progress and the big man has been meeting expectations, managing to play in all of the last 20 games.
There is no question that Goga’s transition to the NBA has been a slow process and fortunately Nate Bjorkgren’s coaching has helped him in regards to minutes distribution. Bitadze wasn’t a factor in the bubble last season because of injury, he wasn’t available for two of three preseason games because of another injury and was subsequently not available to start the 2020-21 season, being inactive for the first 12 games. This has changed in the last few weeks with Bitadze playing consistent minutes and slowly creeping into fantasy consideration with averages of 6.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.0 triples per game, good enough for top-125 value in 9-cat leagues.
Much of his playing time has obviously been a direct result of Myles Turner’s injury but Bitazde seems to be getting over the hump, figuring out a way to become relevant. Don’t forget that he is still just 21 years old and the Pacers invested a first round pick in him so as long as he is able to remain healthy and continue to grow, the future looks very promising for the Georgian center.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s article and feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar. Stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of April 17th.