Pacers select big man Goga Bitadze in first round of NBA draft

BY Michael Marrot • June 21, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS — Kevin Pritchard added one surprisingly big piece to the Indiana Pacers roster in the NBA draft.

Then he started working ahead, planning for a possible exodus of free agents and potentially being without Victor Oladipo until January.

Indiana's president of basketball operations selected 20-year-old center Goga Bitadze in the first round Thursday — a player he said he never expected to be available with the 18th overall pick — and then started cashing in chips for the future.

"We wanted to get one guy who we thought could really make an impact for us, and then we wanted to start acquiring assets," Pritchard said moments after he traded a second-round pick to the Utah Jazz for a future second-rounder. "You think an asset is a draft pick, but it doesn't have to be. It can become a chip for another player."

Pritchard reportedly pulled off three draft-day trades, two of which league rules prevent him from confirming until the start of the new league year. But he alluded to multiple moves by acknowledging Indiana acquired "quite a few things."

The most critical move, though, was getting Bitadze — a player Pritchard had ranked in the top 10. In fact, the Pacers were so convinced the European star would go in the lottery, coach Nate McMillan never watched the scouting tape. But it didn't take McMillan long to understand why Indiana's draft room started buzzing as Bitadze kept sliding.

The Georgia native was last season's Adriatic League MVP and earned the title of best young player after averaging 14.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 30 games.

In December, he moved to the stronger EuroLeague with KK Buducnost. The rookie turned heads by averaging 12.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 13 games with a team from Montenegro and wound up becoming the first center in 13 years to be voted the league's rising star.

"The EuroLeague is a league of men. That is a no-joke league," Pritchard said. "It's better than the G-League, and it's better across the board than a good college team and he's getting it done against high-level adults and it's been my experience that if they play well in those leagues, it really transitions well."

Indiana officials didn't have to look far to find an NBA comparison: Domantas Sabonis.

And Pritchard is so impressed with Bitadze, he talked about using Sabonis and Myles Turner more at power forward to help split up the minutes.

"He's a guy who can step out and shoot the ball, he can handle the ball, he's a good passer, he definitely defends the basket and he blocks shots," McMillan said, referring to Bitadze. "He's a guy who can step in and play right away, he's not a project."

Playing immediately may be the most important element given all the unknowns Indiana still faces this offseason.

Three starters — forwards Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young and point guard Darren Collison — can all become free agents June 30. Backup point guard Cory Joseph and Wesley Matthews, who signed with Indiana at midseason and replaced Oladipo in the starting lineup, also may find new homes.

While Pritchard said keeping Bogdanovic is a priority, he acknowledged all three starters may find better options on the open market.

Oladipo poses another question as he continues to recover from a season-ending ruptured quad tendon in his right leg, which he suffered in January.

"We know with Vic's injury, he might be out a little bit. I'm hopeful he'll be back in December or January," Pritchard said. "We'll see."

With so many potential holes, Pritchard knows he needs reinforcements.

So he started making moves even before the draft began. ESPN first reported Indiana acquired 6-8 forward T.J. Warren and a second-round pick, No. 32, from Phoenix for cash.

If it goes through, as expected, the Suns will free up salary-cap room by sending Warren and his three-year, $35 million contract to Indiana. The Pacers, meanwhile, add another solid scorer with starting experience. Warren, the No. 14 pick in the 2014 draft, averaged 18.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in 43 games last season.

Pritchard then reportedly sent the Suns' second-round pick to Miami for three future second-round picks before capping the night with the Utah trade. Indiana also added a future second-round pick at the trade deadline in February.

But the one player Pritchard did snag can't wait to get to Indianapolis.

"I was shaking, literally," Bitadze said when his name was called. "I was nervous, but this dream came true. I'm really honored that I'm here."

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