Indiana Pacers: Evaluating the current and future low post rotation

Feb 25, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Jalen Smith (25) rebounds the ball in the first half against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 25, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Jalen Smith (25) rebounds the ball in the first half against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Indiana Pacers had a large hole to fill at their low post position once they traded away their two-time All-Star, Domantas Sabonis, and with their longest-tenured player, Myles Turner, being sidelined with a stress reaction.

With rotation spots in the low post positions open, the Indiana Pacers now have an opportunity to evaluate their young talent.

Jalen Smith

Through a seven-game sample size, the team’s best big man has been Jalen Smith, who was recently acquired in a Thursday trade deadline deal for Torrey Craig. The caveat with trading for Smith is the lack of flexibility the Indiana Pacers will have with re-signing him after this season.

The Indiana Pacers are only allowed to offer Jalen Smith an annual salary of $4.7M because the Phoenix Suns declined his third-year option, making Smith an unrestricted free agent this summer.

The Suns declining this option penalizes them from signing Smith for more than his 2021-2022 salary, but since they traded him to the Pacers, Indiana now inherits that penalty.

Smith has been fantastic for the Indiana Pacers, shooting 46.8% from three over the last 7-games, while averaging 12.9 points per game, 7.0 rebounds per game, 1.1 assists per game in just 23.4 minutes per game.

There is a slim chance Smith re-signs with the Indiana Pacers since they allotted him this opportunity to showcase his skills, but with this improved play, teams across the league will have the luxury to outbid the Pacers on a potential contract.

It would be in Smith’s best interest to take the most guaranteed money, but if he wants to give Indiana the benefit of playing him the last quarter of the season, then he could sign a one-year deal for the $4.7M and hit free agency again in 2023.

With all signs pointing to Smith NOT taking a team-friendly deal with the Indiana Pacers at the end of the season, should he be the big man who is getting the most minutes on the team? I think not.

Isaiah Jackson

The Indiana Pacers should be investing as many minutes possible into Isaiah Jackson. Jackson has averaged just 17.4 minutes per game since Jalen Smith was traded to the team.

This is a great opportunity for Jackson to grow as a young player, play through foul trouble and develop as a prospect on both ends of the floor.

In his limited time, Jackson is averaging 11.9 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game, 2.1 blocks per game on 66.7% shooting. Jackson had a career-high in blocks on February 25th with 5-blocks against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Jackson hasn’t proven to be the floor spacer that Smith is, but he is a terrific lob threat at his position and a solid rim protector. In his limited time, the Indiana Pacers are a +26 with him on the floor.

Rick Carlisle has had nothing but high praise for Jackson, but this is the time to maximize his minutes. With 19-games remaining on the schedule and the team lottery-bound, Jackson needs to see as much court time as possible.

Terry Taylor

The big man who has received the second-most minutes for the Indiana Pacers over the last 7-games is two-way forward, Terry Taylor.

Taylor is not a center but can play the center if the team is in a crunch. Over the last 7-games, Taylor is averaging 8.4 points per game, 6.0 rebounds per game, and 1.1 assists per game on 63.4% shooting.

When the Indiana Pacers waived Tristan Thompson, they opened up a roster spot on their 15-man roster. The front office of the Pacers could convert Taylor’s two-way deal into a standard NBA contract, but so far, that has yet to happen.

Being undersized hasn’t been a problem for Taylor, as he is a unique individual with a nose for the basketball. Already this season, Taylor has corralled 16-rebounds in a close loss to the Orlando Magic, after Isaiah Jackson exited the game with a sprained ankle on the first play.

Cutting to the basket at the right time has also been a specialty of Taylor’s this season. He continues to outperform his contract and seems like a long-term piece for this Indiana Pacers team.

He is averaging 21.1 minutes per game since Jalen Smith joined the team, and I feel that this is a fair amount of minutes. However, if Carlisle could find him 5 more minutes per game, the extra time over the next 19-games could help him overall.

Goga Bitadze

If there is one big man who has had a difficult stretch with the Indiana Pacers, look no further than Goga Bitadze. The young center drafted out of the country of Georgia has had an uphill battle from the moment he was drafted.

Not only was it going to be impossible for him to get valuable playing time on a team with playoff aspirations and starting two centers, but Goga also couldn’t even compete in the NBA Summer League due to visa issues.

Once he finally got settled into Indiana, he never got a consistent run under Nate McMillan. The Indiana Pacers tried to deal with Myles Turner his second year in the league, but with the Pacers striking out on the Gordon Hayward deal, it once again meant a logjam was still there at the center position.

As Rick Carlisle came into the picture, playing time was inconsistent once again for Bitadze as he found himself in and out of the rotation, with a limited role and not being able to get into any rhythm.

Bitadze ventured down to the G-League multiple times over this three-year stretch and dominated against the lesser talent down there. When watching Goga play you can see the potential, but you can also see the limitations.

Over the last 7-games, Bitadze has averaged just 17.6 minutes per game, 6.6 points per game, 3.0 rebounds per game, 1.1 blocks per game while shooting 54.5% from the field and 44.4% from three.

While Bitadze might not be in the Indiana Pacers’ long-term plans, the team did pick up his 4th-year rookie option this past off-season.

This is a great opportunity for Goga to grow as a prospect, potentially improve his trade value across the league, and showcase to the Indiana Pacers why he can be a valuable piece to their second unit.

Giving Bitadze a consistent role over the remainder of the season will allow him to get into a rhythm and give the front office a clearer understanding of what they have before the off-season.

Overall Thoughts

While Jalen Smith is the most talented player of the four young guys right now, the likelihood of him being a member of the Indiana Pacers next season is incredibly slim.

The Indiana Pacers aren’t necessarily tanking outright, but they are using this time to develop their players, per Rick Carlisle.

You can see the potential in all four young players, but right now, there is no question that Myles Turner is still the best option at center for this team moving forward.

Turner’s elite rim protection is severely missed, as the Indiana Pacers are 26th in defensive rating since acquiring Tyrese Haliburton. He is on another level than any of the young prospects on this roster.

While Turner has his shortcomings and there are serious questions that need to be answered in regards to his health, he makes this team better when he’s healthy and available.

We know that Myles is an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2023, so he could be extended this off-season by the Indiana Pacers, he could test the free agency market to see what else is out there or there is always the option he is traded this summer.

That is why it is important for Jackson, Taylor, and Bitadze to be given the maximum amount of playing time to showcase their skillset. If Turner isn’t a part of the long-term future for the Indiana Pacers, they need to see if they have his replacement on the roster.

It is critical that the Indiana Pacers continue to develop their young talent, but also important to invest more in the players who will be here past this season.

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