It’s been a strange start to the year.

It’s been a strange start to the year.

It’s been a strange start to the year.

Fool’s Gold or Gold Swagger?

Nov 10, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) takes a shot against Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Utah 97-86. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 10, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) takes a shot against Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Utah 97-86. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s been a strange start to the year.

There are more people in suits on the Pacers bench than in the Banker’s Life business suites. The hopes of Hoosiers everywhere are tied to the likes of Donald Sloan and Solomon Hill, and hope is being inspired. The Pacers are 3-6, and their fans are pretty pumped about this. Riding high on a two-game winning streak (strangely, not sarcasm), Pacers nation is thinking about another playoff appearance.

But nine games is an extremely small sample size, and small sample sizes can be misleading. Let’s not forget that, for a month in 2012, Jeremy Lin was a transcendent and stereotype-repudiating hall-of-famer. So it’s worth looking at some of the pleasant surprises from the start of the Pacers’ season and exploring their sustainability. We’ll call it “Fool’s Gold or Gold Swagger?” 

Solomon Hill: Building Block

When Frank Vogel and Larry Bird were hyping up Solomon during Summer League action, it was easy to be cynical. Vogel has tended toward glass-overflowing-at-all-times optimism, and some just assumed Bird wanted to raise interest in a trade. But after the sophomore’s 24-point breakout against the Wizards, that praise seems more legit.

Opportunity has a lot to do with this: someone has to take shots, and Hill has been one of just a couple of Pacers who can drive to the basket (someone please tell Luis Scola that he is not one of them). But his ability to actually finish around the basket, showing some crafty layups and strong dunks, has been the most promising. He will never be a three-point assassin, but assuming his shot will continue to improve, he could be a corner-three spacer when Paul George is driving down the lane again next season (or when Rodney Stuckey is this season). His 10 boards against Miami show his ability to contribute when struggling with his offensive game. His passing leaves much to be desired (along with most of his teammates), but he seems to be developing into the versatile contributor and trustworthy defender the Pacers hoped him to be. He won’t be Kawhi Leonard, but he won’t be Sam Young, either.

Verdict: Gold Swagger

AJ Price’s Storybook Comeback

Desperate to stick around for more than a week and a half in his second stint with the Pacers, AJ Price went off against the Jazz, dropping in 22 points and inspiring conversations about whether the Pacers should find room for him long-term. Wednesday night demonstrated the shadow of that kind of desperation: Price went 3 of 12 from the field and repeatedly pulled up for contested J’s on fast breaks. Price finding an NBA home with his former team would make for a good story, but with the emergence of Sloan and the eventual return of George Hill and C.J. Watson, the veteran will be back on that ol’ dusty trail sooner than later.

Verdict: Fool’s Gold

Lavoy Allen: Emerging Glass Eater

As far as early-season developments go the emergence of Lavoy Allen has been among the least-surprising for Pacers fans. He received high praise from coaches both here and back in Philadelphia, and looked good in limited time last year. The 6’9 forward has been great on the boards this year, particularly on the offensive side. In just 24 minutes per game, Allen has averaged 3.4 offensive rebounds; only Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders has done more with less.

Rebounding numbers can be incredibly skewed this early in the year, particularly as more and more teams trend toward smaller lineups. Take Chris Bosh, who has averaged double-digit rebounds this year, but looked more like his preening velociraptor self against the Pacers, who held him to just two. But Lavoy looks like one of those players with a knack for rebounding — he knows where to be, when to jump, how to position himself. He has an uncanny ability to tip in shots from difficult angles. Some great rebounders do it with recklessness and anger; Allen is smooth, fluid, and comfortable, like the Sam Perkins of tip-ins. He is eating more and more of Scola’s minutes each game, and should continue to grow as another building block for the Pacers.

Verdict: Gold Swagger

Roy Hibbert’s Kareem-Instructed Offensive Game

Even before Roy Hibbert knew he would become the focal point of the Pacers’ offense this season, he enlisted the help of the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and occasional celebrity pilot, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Early on, it seems to have had an effect, as the big man has shown an improved jumper and, most predictably, a smoother hook shot. This reliability down low has helped the Pacers form an identity this year, and brings promising signs for the up-and-down All Star moving forward.

We’ve sort of been down this path before with Roy, though. He’s been dominant for stretches and painful to watch for others. After a hot start last year, Hibbert declined steadily before plummeting at the end of the year, engendering internet reactions like this. His Playing Efficiency Rating mapped over the course of last year looks like a stock chart for Malaysia Airlines. The Pacers attribute this largely to conditioning and the unusual wear-and-tear that defines life for the NBA big man. This was one of the primary reasons for reaching out to Abdul-Jabbar in the first place. Vogel says he plans on monitoring Roy’s minutes more, particularly on back-to-backs, to stave off a similar scoring pattern this season. Roy’s confidence issues have been fairly well-known, though, and a lower playing weight and monitored minutes will do nothing for that if Roy finds himself in another rut.

Also concerning is Roy’s performance against other top-tier centers. The only games in which Hibbert has shot under 50% have been against Washington (twice – and it’s important to mention he left early with a knee bruise in one of them) and Memphis. And while centers like Nene and Marc Gasol are rare in today’s NBA, those matchups should be considered when assessing his strong offensive start.

Verdict: Jury is deliberating