Amid all the Pascal Siakam trade news, it would be understandable for one to forget that the Indiana Pacers also had a basketball game to play on Thursday, with this being even more understandable given the time. For the first time in the season, the Pacers started a game at 10 PM Eastern Time as they traveled to Sacramento to face De'Aaron Fox and a full-strength Kings team.
Of course, with Bruce Brown and Jordan Nwora being traded to Toronto by this time and Pascal Siakam having recently touched down in Indiana, the Pacers were already looking quite shorthanded as is.
These issues were then furthered after it was revealed that Aaron Nesmith and Andrew Nembhard would also be missing the game, along with Tyrese Haliburton, who was upgraded to questionable status before the game for the first time.
Nevertheless, Indiana took their shorthanded nine-man rotation to Sacramento to face a full-strength Kings team that had some recent struggles and was looking for an easy win, especially with Indiana not having a single backup point guard on the roster. As such, some Pacers fans were already calling it a night before the game, looking to miss it altogether in favor of other activities or sleep.
However, the Kings would not find this easy victory on Thursday, as Indiana dominated most of the night, leading by as much as 16 points at times and ultimately coming away with a five-point win after some late-game antics by Sacramento chipped away at the lead. Ultimately, the free throw battle cost Sacramento the game, as they shot 18/32 from the line, including some crucial ones in the clutch.
Surprisingly, Indiana did a fantastic job handling the lack of point guard play, as TJ McConnell only had to play 32 minutes, relatively low for being the only active point guard. To spell McConnell while he sat out, Indiana ran a mix of Buddy Hield and rookie Ben Sheppard at the point guard, with plenty of success, as Hield ended the night with eight assists to go with his 12 points, and Sheppard was also productive with seven points and some big shots.
All in all, everyone on the Pacers contributed mightily to this win, with McConnell doing his best Haliburton impersonation with 20 points and 10 assists, Bennedict Mathurin leading the way with 25 points, Jalen Smith having a double-double with 17 points and 13 assists despite fighting stomach issues all game, Myles Turner adding 18 points, and Obi Toppin adding on 10 as well (Isaiah Jackson scored two before leaving the game early with a concussion).
However, perhaps the most eye-catching performance on the night was little-used rookie and fan favorite Jarace Walker. Fresh off narrowly avoiding a trade to the Toronto Raptors, Walker was looked at with some skepticism from fans and critics alike, as his lack of playing time has become a key talking point among Pacers fans who have expressed frustration and Raptors fans who also expressed frustration over a so-called "G-Leaguer" being considered untouchable in Pascal Siakam talks.
That said, some eyes were on Walker to prove his worth on Thursday with an undermanned Pacers roster that needed his help as potentially the second-best active passer on the team.
Pretty safe to say Walker did not disappoint. In 19 minutes, the second-least on the team but also one of the highest minutes totals he has logged so far in his career, Walker displayed the exact level of play that has made him so highly touted around the league and beloved by Pacers fans, as he scored a career-high 15 points on 6/13 shooting and 3/8 from beyond the arc to go along with two rebounds and two assists.
Finally being given free rein to operate at his most effective, that being a tertiary playmaker who can make the extra pass and score when called upon, Walker displayed plenty of moves in his offensive repertoire, getting to the rim with ease at times, but also rising up and hitting jumpers, which was very necessary, as Sacramento very frequently sent double teams his way, recognizing his size and ability to barrel inside.
Walker paid no mind to this extra attention, though, as he connected on a career-high three three-pointers and even scored on some mid-range buckets off the dribble, showing improved scoring ability from college and a little glimpse into the future.
Amidst all this productivity from Walker was another interesting sign: the position he was playing. Normally seen as a power forward, Walker mainly played small forward on Thursday, as the Pacers are now short at that position with Bruce Brown gone and far too loaded at the four with neither Jalen Smith nor Obi Toppin being traded as of yet.
As a result, even with everyone healthy, Indiana will be hard pressed to find a backup small forward than Walker, whose stocky build, long arms, athletic frame, and do-it-all playstyle are downright perfect for what Indiana needs right now and perhaps could be a potential playoff piece if used right.
Of course, we all know how strict Rick Carlisle has been on Walker this year. Despite being taken with the 8th selection in June, Walker has largely been relegated to sparse minutes in mostly blowouts, with the occasional rotational minutes when injuries have plagued Indiana, which has been a few times now.
Despite all of this, Carlisle and the rest of the team still clearly value Walker very highly, as seen by their downright refusal to include him in any Pascal Siakam trade. One can only hope that with Siakam to learn from and with more minutes at small forward opening up, Jarace Walker can secure a rotational spot for himself for the rest of the season.
As the 41st game of the season concluded on Thursday, Indiana has now officially reached the halfway mark of their season with the team looking drastically different from the start of the season. Hopefully, one of these changes will be the rise of Jarace Walker with the newfound trust he has inevitably gotten after his fantastic performance on Thursday.
No longer just a "G-Leaguer," Walker is now on his way to becoming a productive role player on one of the league's best and brightest teams, all at just 20 years old.