The unlikely rise of Ben Sheppard and what this means for the Pacers

Ben Sheppard has taken a leap in production over the last few weeks. Should he be considered a future starter for the Indiana Pacers soon?
Detroit Pistons v Indiana Pacers
Detroit Pistons v Indiana Pacers / Dylan Buell/GettyImages

The Indiana Pacers have finally broken out of their slump, defeating the Dallas Mavericks for the second time in nine days by a considerable margin. After two demoralizing losses on the road, the Pacers finally took control and blew out the playoff-contending Mavericks with a final score of 137-120. Despite a relatively close first half, the Pacers took full advantage in the second half of play and outscored Luka Doncic and company 63-50. All in all, nine Pacers scored in double figures on Tuesday night, with Tyrese Haliburton's 19 points being a solid bounce-back game after his recent struggles.

One of those nine players to score in double figures just so happened to be Ben Sheppard, who has slowly carved out a rotation spot for him as the season progresses. Drafted out of Belmont with the 26th pick of the 2023 NBA Draft, Sheppard was not expected to make much noise before the season started, with him and fellow first-round pick Jarace Walker being touted as the future of the team who wouldn't have much to do with the Pacers road to a playoff return in the 2023-24 season.

This was relatively true as the season progressed. In the first 32 games of his career, Sheppard played a far bench role, rarely getting rotation minutes unless multiple players were injured and not being particularly effective in the minutes he got. In 32 games, Sheppard averaged three points on 36/27/80% splits on about 10 minutes per game, relatively underwhelming numbers. In particular, Sheppard's shooting numbers did not seem up to par for someone who was touted as a three-and-D guy coming out of college.

However, this sentiment changed on February 14 against the Toronto Raptors. In this game, Sheppard logged the third-most minutes of his career and delivered a career-high in points and some incredible defense, including on the last possession of the game, where he forced RJ Barrett into a tough contested jumper to cement the Pacers win.

Ben Sheppard is now a key member of the Pacers' rotation

This game seemed to strike a match in Sheppard, as he has transformed into a legitimate rotation player since this performance. In the last six games, Sheppard has upped his averages across the board, averaging close to 19 minutes per game and almost averaging double figures on 55/55/100% shooting splits and some incredible defense, including against Dallas on Tuesday.

Following up his career-high performance against the Mavericks on February 25, Sheppard followed that up with an arguably more impressive game, scoring 12 points, all threes, and grabbing seven rebounds en route to the win. Sheppard's defense was as close to perfect as you can get, as he played an instrumental role in stopping any Mavericks runs in the fourth quarter and ensuring that Indiana walked away with the win.

One play in particular caught my eye and is something that not many Pacers have been able to do this season. Sheppard's ability to sense a lob from the corner before it happened and swoop in to deflect it won't show up on any highlight reels, but it was one of the most eye-catching plays of the night and a testament to how mature a basketball mind the 22-year-old Sheppard already is.

In addition to the defensive help, Sheppard has also exhibited incredible confidence in his offensive abilities, particularly his jump shot. In the aforementioned last six games, Sheppard has taken a total of 27 threes and made 15 of them for a fantastic 55.6% clip from beyond the arc.

His knack for taking big shots at such a young age and with relative inexperience has been quite the surprise, as he has routinely taken threes without hesitating and drained them to give Indiana some much-needed momentum back or suck all the momentum out of the opposing team, which is exactly what he did against Dallas.

Going forward, what does Sheppard's recent breakout mean for Indiana? For one, Sheppard may be the team's long-term Buddy Hield replacement. Offensively, Hield was a perfect fit in the backcourt alongside Tyrese Haliburton, with his gravity as a shooter often taking defensive attention away from Haliburton and letting him operate peacefully. After all, it is no mere coincidence that Haliburton has taken more contested shots since Hield got traded.

This is where Sheppard comes in. If he can keep up this incredible shooting rate, Sheppard can be the team's Buddy Hield replacement to take pressure away from Haliburton. Eventually, teams will start to add Sheppard to their scouting report and give him more defensive attention, which leaves the floor wider for Haliburton to go to work.

However, unlike Hield, Sheppard is a good perimeter defender. This is where he can be even more valuable than Hield was. As good as Hield's gravity was for Haliburton, a defensive backcourt of those two was always going to cause problems, especially against great perimeter teams. If Sheppard can keep his shooting consistent as well as his defensive effort, he will become an incredibly valuable piece to this team going forward, and the X-Factor that Indiana can plug into any lineup for instant offensive and defensive firepower.

Next. Next story. The Pacers need to bring this player back next year. dark

Does Ben Sheppard have a case to start in the backcourt alongside Haliburton right now? Perhaps, perhaps not. All that is certain is that he is currently on the fast track to being one of the better two-way rotation players on the team and a potential playoff rotation player if he keeps this play up.