It was reported on Friday that Indiana Pacers guard Chris Duarte would be sent to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for draft compensation. Duarte, a 26-year-old player entering his third NBA season, was in trade rumors for some time before being dealt to the Kings. After a strong rookie campaign, he saw his second-year minutes pinched by standout rookies Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard. Duarte found himself plagued by injuries and scrapping for minutes from deep in the rotation on most nights last season.
The Pacers passed on several high-upside players in the 2021 draft in favor of Chris Duarte. As the oldest player in the draft, he had a polished game that was a seamless fit into the Pacers’ system at the time. The front office drafted Duarte to be a plug-and-play wing on a win-now team. They didn’t anticipate tearing apart the roster just a few months later.
A large portion of Duarte’s success as a rookie came from his hyper-efficient two-man game with center Domantas Sabonis. After Sabonis’s departure to Sacramento, he had more difficulty getting the ball in his preferred spots. The Pacers tweaked their play style and Chris Duarte found himself on the outside looking in, desperately trying to mold himself into a role that was never clearly defined.
Duarte’s sophomore season was colored by this lack of role clarity and the mental fatigue caused by suiting up each night in spite of it. The injuries only added another layer of distress, and often Duarte’s frustration was evident on the court. He forced shots out of rhythm and over-thought his open looks. He was even seen slamming a chair on his way back to the locker room after sustaining yet another injury in mid-January.
Despite the underwhelming production from second-year Duarte, drafting him wasn’t a failure by the Pacers’ decision makers. It was a safe pick–a high-floor guy with a relatively predictable ceiling. It’s possible Duarte showed us that ceiling with his flashy rookie season. The issue with the Duarte experience lies in the unfortunate timing of the Tyrese Haliburton trade.
The Pacers instantly became Tyrese Haliburton’s team and immediately began to follow Tyrese Haliburton’s timeline. This led to the acquisitions of Mathurin, Nembhard, and even Aaron Nesmith. Duarte went from “exciting rookie” to “odd man out” seemingly overnight. Once the decision was made to tear down the previous iteration of the Indiana Pacers–the version built for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis–the writing was on the wall for Duarte.
To be clear, this is absolutely not the end of Chris Duarte’s NBA career.
In fact, he’ll likely be an impactful role player with the Sacramento Kings. His reunion with former Pacer Domantas Sabonis and his easy fit into the Kings’ play style should both provide a good environment for him to bounce back from his sophomore slump. Improvements in his shot consistency and effort on the defensive side of the ball will earn him more minutes in Sacramento–a team looking to return to the playoffs after ending a 16-year playoff drought last season.
Many of the good memories from the Chris Duarte experience will be eclipsed by his disappointing second season, but he gave Pacers’ fans a reason to watch the team during a boring time in Pacers’ history. His professionalism throughout uncertainty and his drive to compete within that uncertainty make him a player many will be sad to see go, but he stands to see more success in Sacramento with a better-defined role.
Indiana’s front office continues to operate exceptionally well, although minor draft compensation (likely one or two second-round picks) for a former 13-overall pick is a bit unfortunate. Future second round picks are seeing an increase in value with new CBA restrictions, however, and the Pacers are armed with substantial flexibility as they progress toward a fully-polished roster.