The 2021 NBA Draft is just around the corner, and the Indiana Pacers are approaching it as one of the few teams with three or more total picks. They have the power to go in numerous directions on draft night.
And the Pacers will have to consider all of them. After an uneasy 34-38 season, the blue and gold are looking for ways to improve and stabilize. With a new head coach, a relatively small group of young players, and questions about the team’s direction, the Pacers could do a number of things in the days leading up to, and during, the NBA Draft.
Indiana has the 13th, 54th, and 60th overall selections on Thursday. 13 is strongest draft spot the Pacers have owned since 2015 when they chose Myles Turner with the 11th overall pick. It’s just the team’s third lottery pick since 2010 — the Pacers rarely pick this high, and it’s important that they take advantage of the opportunity.
“We go into every draft wanting to pick a player that is going to be a long term piece here. The higher the number, theoretically, the more likely that is going to happen,” Pacers Vice President of Player Personnel Ryan Carr said this week. “And 13 this year is no different. We want to get a player that is going to be a good player and in 10 years, you look back and outperforms his draft position.”
What comes with having a better pick than normal is having more opportunities than normal. While the team from the Circle City has the option of simply selecting a solid prospect in a talented draft class, they could also use the 13th overall pick in a variety of ways to alter their roster or asset pool. Basically anything is justifiable given where the Pacers are at in the team-building process.
Indiana is trying to win, and many of the veterans from the team last season are returning. It may be hard for anyone drafted by the Pacers to find significant minutes in the team’s rotation early in their career. That could push the team to think hard about drafting a more NBA-ready prospect, should they think one exists, that could play immediately. In theory, such a player could contribute to a team with playoff aspirations.
But a crowded rotation could also make the Pacers front office think about trading the 13th pick for a later selection in the first round along with a lesser veteran, then drafting a project-type player in the process. If the team is set on making a pick somewhere in the first round, then this strategy would give the team a more immediate contributor while still adding to their youth pipeline, a possible best-of-both-worlds scenario.
Additionally, it’s feasible to think the blue and gold could deal the pick straight up for a well-established veteran that could contribute in a meaningful way next season. When the organization hired Rick Carlisle to be the next head coach of the team, they signaled that they are trying to improve their record from last season. Acquiring a solid veteran would certainly help accomplish that, and the 13th pick could fetch a talented player on the trade market.
“I think it’s pretty normal in the amount of calls that come back and forth,” Carr said of trade talks this draft cycle.
That said, the Pacers can’t be too short sighted in their thought process. The draft is an opportunity to acquire, and develop, a key piece for at least a half-decade. It is important for any team to maintain a long-term vision when it comes to making selections. While the Pacers have short-term goals to succeed, they also need to remain competitive in the future, and the team currently only has two players under contract who will be under 25 years-old when next season starts. Adding youth to this Indiana roster is important, and trading the 13th pick for the wrong vet would come with some serious drawbacks.
Because the Pacers youth pipeline is so small, it is important that they nail this pick. They could get stuck in their current position for a few more seasons if another selection or two flames out. Relying on Oshae Brissett and Goga Bitadze to be the team’s only established youth is a risky operation, even if those two players have promise.
While it isn’t certain that the Pacers will actually pick at 13 specifically, this draft has a large tier of potential quality contributors outside of the top-6 or top-7 players. Indiana has worked out a number of them, including Tre Mann, Jaden Springer, Kai Jones, Moses Moody, Sharife Cooper, Ayo Dosunmu, Isaiah Jackson, Chris Duarte, Corey Kispert, Cam Thomas, and Ziaire Williams. They interviewed even more in late June at the draft combine in Chicago.
A handful of players make sense for the Pacers that could be available around pick 13, but a trio that stands out are Moody, Kispert, and James Bouknight. All three can cause damage offensively both with and without the ball, which would help them fit in both with Rick Carlisle’s read-and-react, spacing heavy offense he deployed in Dallas and with the roster the Pacers already have. Cooper, Jalen Johnson, and Josh Giddey could be good fits for similar reasons, though their strengths don’t match quite as well as the others.
The Indianapolis Star reported that the Pacers “really like” Duarte, a 24-year old wing from the University of Oregon. He is a talented scorer with some smart off-ball capabilities, but like every prospect, there are some question marks about his game, namely his shot creation ability.
As mentioned above, it’s possible that the Pacers make a trade in this draft, particularly if none of the players they like are available when they are selecting in the first round. The blue and gold have some desirable veterans that the team could package with pick 13 to trade up into a higher draft slot, and there are a few teams that select not long after the Pacers in round one that have multiple picks and may want to trade up into the Pacers slot. Movement in both directions is tenable.
It’s impossible to predict what Indiana might do without knowing what specific trade offers they have, but simply looking at the order that teams pick as well as the Pacers needs displays that the Indiana front office could move up or down in the first round. That sounds silly to point out — every pick can be moved up or down for the right price. But the Pacers roster situation, as well as the number of talented prospects in this draft, gives them more legitimate reasons to consider a move in both directions in the first round.
There’s also the option of trades in the second round. The Pacers have two of the final seven picks in the draft, which puts them in a position to add a prospect or two on the end of their bench, if they are so inclined. But the Pacers might not even have enough open roster spots — it will depend on what happens with some of their free agents — to add three players on draft night. It might make sense for the Pacers front office to consolidate those late picks and move up slightly in the second round, or possibly flip them for a future draft selection when the team will have more available roster spots and resources. Indiana has not been shy about dealing second round picks in recent seasons, so don’t be surprised to see one, or both, of these selections get moved on Thursday.
Also keep an eye out for a draft-and-stash situation in which the Pacers select an overseas player with the intent of having said player join the team in the future, but not in 2021-22. That would allow the blue and gold to use a pick on an asset while not using a roster spot on a nearly-filled team.
If Indiana does keep both of their second round picks, three guys that makes some sense for the team are Austin Reaves, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Joe Wieskamp. “We prepare about one through 80 in the draft every year,” Carr said. “You need to have a skill that will get you on the court.” All three of those players have a skill that could keep them on the court in the NBA. For Reaves, it’s his scoring and ball handling. For Robinson-Earl, it’s his defense. And for Wieskamp, it’s his outside shooting. Reaves and Robinson-Earl both took part in a pre-draft workout for the Pacers.
One final reason for the Pacers to possibly trade a second round pick would be to shed some salary. While the blue and gold don’t have any negative-value contracts on the books, trading a more expensive player for a cheaper one that provides similar production might make sense for them given their salary cap situation. Typically, a swap like that requires a small asset to accomplish. Shedding some salary shouldn’t be off the table for the Pacers’ front office, though it may be a lesser goal for a team with aspirations of contending.
Another consideration for Indiana on draft night has to be fit, and more specifically, how a player’s skills and natural position fits the Pacers’ long-term plans. Overemphasizing fit is a bad way to draft — typically, it is smart for teams to pick the best player on the board. But the Pacers already have numerous young centers under contract, so picking a big man like Jones or Alperen Şengün would be ill-advised.
Additionally, both JaKarr Sampson and Doug McDermott are free agents this offseason, so it is entirely possible that the blue and gold have a bigger immediate need at forward than other positions this summer. That said, it would be short-sighted to pick a forward for that reason alone. If the Pacers’ decision makers have two players ranked similarly on their draft board, fit and positional need should come into play mostly as tiebreakers. It has to, given their uneven roster construction.
The 2021 NBA Draft features a combination of older, more experienced players and younger players that will take more time to develop. The Pacers might have to decide, wherever they end up picking, which of those options is more appealing at this point in time. There may not be a wrong answer, but with both options on the table, and numerous other factors at play, the Pacers will need to identify their goals before the draft starts.
That might be the theme for the Pacers this year — goals. Given that the team has various reasons to trade, some positions of need, and a solid crop of prospects to chose from, the 2021 NBA Draft is shaping up to be a fascinating one for the blue and gold. With so many options, and many beneficial strategies, the Pacers will need to identify their goals to have a successful night. As a team in need of some changes, though, Indiana needs nail draft night so that they can get off to a strong start in the (second) Rick Carlisle era.