Oladipo's absence forces Pacers to lean on Turner, new faces
Paul George and Lance Stephenson left long ago. Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison said goodbye during the summer and two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo is still recovering from an injury.
So as the Pacers prepare for their Oct. 23 season opener against Detroit, the 23-year-old center and Indiana's longest-tenured player suddenly finds himself as the team leader.
"I expect the same thing he expects out of himself — big things," Oladipo said. "He just has go out there and be Myles Turner."
Through four pro seasons, Turner has steadily improved. He went from part-time starter as a rookie to full-time starter in his second season, finished among the league's top 10 in blocks in 2017-18 and won the NBA blocks title last season despite missing eight games because of injuries.
He spent a few days this summer working out with former Boston Celtics star Kevin McHale before representing the U.S. in Beijing at the FIBA World Cup. And now the Pacers believe Turner can become the league's top defensive center.
"It's something I want to keep building on and get better with year in and year out," Turner aid. "I've still got a ways to go."
The question, of course, is how Turner fits with all these new faces.
President of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard traded for guard Malcolm Brogdon and forward T.J. Warren. Pritchard signed free agent guards Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday and gave guard C.J. Wilcox a second chance.
And all of it was built around Turner, the man in the middle.
"We've added offensive players to the roster and it's going to take chemistry," coach Nate McMillan said. "I think this can work with the players we brought in but it's going to take each guy playing for the next guy and trusting that we're going to have one common goal and that's to win."
The Pacers have been measured in their expectations for Oladipo, who ruptured the quad tendon in his right knee in January. Oladipo has repeatedly said he intends to come back a better player. But the only hint of a possible return date came when Pritchard said this summer it could be December or January.
"I know he will not start the season," McMillan said. "I haven't had any information given to me that he will be practicing with the team anytime soon. So I don't anticipate Victor being available for a while and I don't know what a while is."
Brogdon, like Turner, has steadily improved over each of his first three seasons in the league. His scoring average and shooting percentages have gone each season. What the Pacers value is Brogdon's ability to play both guard spots and his ability to defend. And that, they believe makes him the perfect complement to Oladipo when he does return.
"He's going to be our starting point guard," McMillan said. "I love his leadership. He chose us, I've had a few players that wanted to play for me but this guy said he had really been eyeballing us since he came out of the draft. I think he's a throwback with how he plays the game, how he thinks the game. He understands that position."
Turner isn't the only Pacers' big man in a new role. Forward Domantas Sabonis will likely go from super sub to full-time starter, giving the Pacers a more traditional look with two 6-foot-11 players in the starting lineup. McMillan believes it soon could become a league-wide trend.
"You look at what Philadelphia has done. You look at what Detroit has done. You look at what Denver has done," McMillan said. "So not everyone is playing the spread basketball that has been adopted over the past 10 years. I think you're going to see the game turn back to a power forward and a center and we really feel like we can play big or play small."
McMillan has seen the Pacers make first-round playoff exits in three straight seasons. His goal is to change that legacy this season.
"The last three years we had decent seasons and were able to get to the playoffs but it was first round and out," McMillan said. "The first year we were a little young and we get swept by Cleveland. The second year, we lose 4-3 so we got close and last season we were missing Victor and we get swept. So I think it's a year to prove ourselves."