October 21, 2019, 2:58 am
The Pacers enter this season as a team looking to establish its contender status for the foreseeable future. In an Eastern Conference that’s as open as it’s been in over a decade, Indiana is out to prove that they can run with the legitimate heavyweights.
The team’s core of Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner remains the same, but much of the supporting cast has changed in the last few months.
Sophomore point guard Aaron Holiday, fresh off a season in which he averaged 12.9 minutes across 50 games, will assume backup duties. It will mean consequential minutes on a team that’s eyeing deep playoff runs in the coming years and make for a mighty test – not just for Holiday, but for the Pacers’ development philosophy as well.
Two seasons ago, Indiana looked ready to embark on a long rebuild after trading Paul George to the Thunder for two intriguing young players who had shown flashes of promise, but ultimately still had questions to answer. The Pacers would be younger, but still lacked the first-year, high-lottery sort of talent that steps right into a major role.
Oladipo’s breakout was enough to lurch the team forward into the playoff field and the organization remained steadfast in its cautious handling of its youngest players. Since Turner was selected in 2015, the Pacers’ rookies have spent most of their first years soaking up the action from the best seats in the house.
Given the list of recent draftees, it’s not exactly surprising that the team felt it prudent to give them more seasoning rather than toss them right into the fire. Partly a result of circumstance, with the Pacers looking strong even after Oladipo tore a quad tendon last season, and partly a result of organizational practice, Holiday followed a similar plan despite a loftier pedigree.
Entering the draft, Holiday’s stock was up for debate. Some prognosticators viewed him as a long-term answer at point guard that could be drafted in the early teens while others had him going in the second round and carving out a role as a quality backup.
No matter the projection, Holiday was universally lauded for his ability to penetrate on offense and his willingness to battle any opponent on the defensive end. His shooting and scoring abilities also won rave reviews, and despite the prospect of Holiday becoming a major contributor, the Pacers stuck with their typical plan. Holiday, like the team’s other recent rookies, would spend a lot of time observing in his first campaign.
While his selection was cause for some long-term excitement, Holiday was stuck behind a pair of quality guards on a strong team in Darren Collison and Cory Joseph. While he impressed in his opportunities, there were limited chances for Holiday to carve out a larger role – likely by design. Still, even given the team’s depth, it felt like a bit much, especially for a player with Holiday’s expected upside.
In his rookie class, Holiday ranked 21st in minutes per game among first-round picks. When you eliminate players that missed significant time due to injury, only Jacob Evans, Robert Williams, Mo Wagner, Anfernee Simons and Grayson Allen played less than Holiday – and two of those guys were drafted with the expectation of a quasi-redshirt season.
Expand that to include the 2017 and 2016 draft classes, and only the following first-round players saw less time than Holiday in their rookie years:
2017: Tyler Lydon, Caleb Swanigan, Justin Patton (only four games but multiple foot surgeries), D.J. Wilson, Terrance Ferguson, T.J. Leaf, Derrick White
2016: Wade Baldwin, Jakob Poeltl, Thon Maker, Malachi Richardson, Damian Jones, Dejounte Murray, Henry Ellenson, Guerschon Yabusele, Furkan Korkmaz, Ante Zizic, Brice Johnson
Among that group, there aren’t many players with serious shots at big roles in the near future, and less than a handful of players who look to be established as serious contributors. In short, the good players were typically given at least the chance to make an impact right away.
It should be repeated that the Pacers simply haven’t drafted any rookies that have been so good as to demand playing time since Turner in 2015. With all due respect to Georges Niang, Joe Young, T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu and Alize Johnson, none entered the league as a threat to crack the rotation in year one. Theoretically, Holiday was in a different class – he’s expected to be the backup point guard while the rest of that group is either already out of the league or set to work in deep reserve duty, after all.
Development isn’t one-size-fits-all, and not every player will benefit from simply being on the court. The Pacers aren’t the sort of anarchistic environment that allows bad habits to set deep roots in free-flowing, garbage-time minutes, but there was just slightly too much at stake to give Holiday substantial playing time and ask for quality play from the jump.
Still, Oladipo’s injury, plus Collison and Joseph’s impending free agency, gave the Pacers a perfect opportunity to pull the chute and see just how NBA-ready Holiday was down the stretch. Indiana was comfortably in a playoff spot and wasn’t reasonably expected to win more than a single round without their star. They chose to stick with the plan, forgoing serious reps for a presumed core piece in the process.
That’s not to say that Holiday is ‘too good’ for that treatment. It was thought that he was above that route, certainly, but the Pacers clearly felt that Holiday would benefit from a less-intense rookie season.
Now, with expectations high following a year where Indiana looked borderline excellent when Oladipo was healthy, Holiday will be asked to step up to the plate and deliver, with no cushion in the standings for the team to fall back on in case it doesn’t go smoothly. Although Indiana added a pair of quality playmakers in Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. McConnell, the sophomore will be counted on to contribute in a meaningful role.
The Pacers are past their short window of patience. The urgency has been ratcheted up, as evidenced by the team’s aggressive decisions in free agency and the likelihood that first-round pick Goga Bitadze starts the year in the rotation. Indiana got good far faster than anticipated and it’s time for the team’s depth to rise to the occasion, even if they haven’t been tested rigorously yet.
If Holiday, and the complementary pieces in general, struggle to work out the kinks, then Oladipo’s eventual return will come as a major relief. If the Pacers’ gambit pays off and Holiday’s behind-the-scenes development turns into on-court production, that same return could serve as rocket fuel.
Either way, in Holiday, we’re about to see the fruits of Indiana’s development plan.