The fate of the Indiana Pacers 2022-2023 season is delicately balanced on the edge of a knife. The Pacers (33-42) are eleventh in the East with eight games remaining and are three-and-a-half games back of the final play-in spot, which is currently occupied by the Chicago Bulls. Whether your determination for a successful season relies on playoff performance or draft position, we can be sure of this; the Pacers have wildly outplayed expectations this year, and they are positioned beautifully to explode into title contention next season.
For teams in the first year of a rebuild, the season’s goals must be first and foremost about player development. The NBA is a star-driven league, and the Pacers embarked on a journey this year to seek theirs. It was a successful endeavor. Tyrese Haliburton is a mega-talent, he is an All-Star, and there can be no doubt as to his status within this franchise; he’s the face of it.
Basketball, however star-driven the league may be, is not a game that functions from the efforts of the mere individual. It is a team sport after all, and one which places a great deal of importance on “role” and “fit”. This year, therefore, has been instructive in that matter as well. The Pacers roster consists of a myriad of young, talented players, some of whom we can see clearly their place moving forward, some whose stay with the franchise might need truncating. In addition, there are several veterans on the team whose performances this year have likely earned assurances of their involvement in the next contending Pacers team, which could come along as soon as a few months from now.
“Contenders?” You may ask yourself through an audible scoff. Allow me to argue on the basis of the following points. I’ll commence with the first:
Development has been the name of the game for this year’s Pacers group. Of the seventeen players currently on the roster, six never saw the 20th century. Aaron Nesmith was lucky enough to see the two and half months that led up to Y2K, and can as a result, rejoice in declaring himself, alongside many of us, a “90s kid”. Youth is the name of the game for rebuilding teams, and that is certainly the case for the Pacers.
One of the goals of this season was to determine which of the many young players housed in Indianapolis could develop into average to high-value players for years to come. Having played most of the season, I think we can definitely say that there are three who belong on this team for years to come, another whose potential is worth carrying, and several who could be moved on from.
Bennedict Mathurin, the number six overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft, has had a rookie season for the ages. He boasts a scoring repertoire that’s placed him second among rookies in scoring and firmly in the rookie-of-the-year race and the sixth-man-of-the-year race. Mathurin can hit standing and pull-up threes, attack the rim violently, and stop on a dime for in-the-lane floaters. Most impressively, Mathurin’s free throw attempt rate is 15th highest in the league and eighth among non-centers.
The aspects of Mathurin’s game that provide encouragement for next season, however, are those which have ample room to grow. Bennedict’s scoring ability is evident, but his efficiency from distance can still improve greatly. He has only recently added a bit of playmaking to his offensive game, and his skills with the most room to grow are on the defensive end. If Mathurin can improve his point-of-attack defense, screen navigation, and his defensive rebound percentage, his two-way ability can rise to the level of stardom.
Andrew Nembhard‘s rookie season can be argued as even more impressive than Mathurin’s. Chosen number thirty-one overall, Nemhard has outperformed any reasonable expectation. A starter for most of the season, his tenacious defense, primary playmaking, and his ability to step up in Haliburton’s absence have made his contributions to this season invaluable, and his potential contributions to the next one tantamount in the least.
No individual improvement has surprised me more this season than Aaron Nesmith’s. I was of the opinion that Nesmith was a player whose three-and-D potential had dried up, not that it had been untapped. I didn’t believe that his handle was polished enough to survive in an NBA rotation, and I believed him too undersized to handle big, wing scorers. I was wrong. Nesmith instead epitomizes “role” and “fit”. He came into a clunky Pacers starting lineup and his contributions oiled a machine that purred for an unreal month-long stretch of winning for a formerly belief-bereft squad. His particular skillset, which includes excellent accuracy from deep, and an ability to finish at the rim that benefits from the Pacers’ uptempo scheme, will continue to provide excellent squad value for next year’s winning team, and given improvement, could help propel the Pacers into contention.
A bone can be thrown to Isaiah Jackson, who despite an up-and-down year, still has the potential to be a valuable play-finisher and excellent defender from the bench, but will need to develop consistency in order to be part of next year’s potential glory. He’s certainly capable, especially given he’s only been allowed legal alcohol for a couple of months. As to Chris Duarte, Jalen Smith, and Oshae Brissett, whom others might include in this group, I for one cannot imagine their place on a finals-contending team.
If the potential of Indiana’s many early-career players is realized, even partially, as soon as next season, the Pacers will be one giant step closer to quick propulsion to the top of the league, and may even begin their path to title contention.