Larry Bird Believes In St. Croix’s Rakeem Christmas
INDIANAPOLIS – It was roughly a year ago when Paul George suffered one of the more gruesome injuries you’ll ever see, breaking his right leg during a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas and immediately sending the Indiana Pacers into a tailspin.
Before the injury, the Pacers were listed at 14-to-1 odds to win the 2015 NBA Finals, better than the Golden State Warriors, who ended up taking the crown.
But without George for most of the season, the Pacers were a shell of the team that won 56 regular season games in 2013-14 and reached that season’s Eastern Conference Finals. Indiana won just 38 games in 2014-15, missing the playoffs in a historically bad Eastern Conference.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Larry Bird’s team has undergone serious roster turnover since the end of the season, especially in its frontcourt. The Pacers dealt Roy Hibbert to the Los Angeles Lakers and watched power forwards Luis Scola and David West both walk in free agency.
Between those three players, they lost 31.7 points and 20.4 rebounds of nightly production and have attempted to replace it by adding Myles Turner, Jordan Hill and, most recently, St. Croix-raised center Rakeem Christmas.
In short, this is an ideal situation for Christmas, who needs to show he belongs in the NBA. Instead of fighting for playing time with Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao in Cleveland, Christmas will compete against Hill, Turner, Lavoy Allen, Ian Mahinmi and Shayne Whittington.
None of those Pacers bigs are exactly dominant players, but let’s take a closer look at each one:
Jordan Hill: Hill comes from the Lakers to the Pacers as the frontrunner to get the most minutes in Indiana’s inexperienced frontcourt. He’s a good rebounder and can be a pretty efficient scorer if used properly, which he wasn’t last season. Los Angeles had him taking far too many mid-range jumpers, which is the main reason he shot only 45.9 percent.
Of course, Hill is far from spectacular. His shooting percentage at the rim dropped below 60 percent last season, and on top of that, he’s a below average defender. But he’s proven himself as a serviceable big man, and he’ll likely start at power forward.
Ian Mahinmi: At 6-foot-11, Mahinmi’s primary responsibilities are to protect the rim and rebound, and he does both well. Per 36 minutes last season, he averaged 11.2 rebounds, a better mark than Hibbert. Meanwhile, opposing players shot just 52.1 percent on attempts less than six feet from the basket when defended by Mahinmi, according to SportVU.
He still isn’t a real threat offensively, having not developed much of a post-up game. But his ability to do the other things should make him Indiana’s best option to start at center.
Lavoy Allen: If Christmas is most similar to any of these players, it’s Allen. Christmas is more of a natural rim protector and should develop into a better scorer than Allen, but there are several parallels to be drawn.
Like Christmas, Allen is listed at 6-foot-9 and was a second-round pick after playing four seasons in college. He can play and guard both the power forward and center positions, and he’s a good rebounder. He’s entering his fifth NBA season, something Christmas hopes to be able to say in four years.
After playing just 8.0 minutes per game in 14 contests with the Pacers in 2013-14, Allen’s playing time more than doubled in 2014-15. Expect a further expanded role in 2015-16, when he’ll likely be Indiana’s first big man off the bench.
Myles Turner: Turner, taken 11th overall by the Pacers in June’s draft, wasn’t nearly the player last season that Christmas was. He averaged 10.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game at Texas — a far cry from the 17.5 points and 9.1 rebounds Christmas averaged per game at SU.
But at 19 years old, Turner has scary upside. He’s a 7-footer who shoots well and stretches the floor in addition to protecting the rim. His health and strength are concerns, but Turner could grow into a star — something you can’t quite say about Christmas.
What you can say about Christmas, however, is that he’s ready to contribute now. At least in the short-term, he could be a better option than Turner.
Shayne Whittington: Whittington spent a lot of the 2014-15 season with the D-League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants and appeared in only 20 games for the Pacers. He probably won’t factor into the rotation too much this season.
Since becoming Indiana’s head coach, Frank Vogel has typically used five big men in his rotation. So while it’s possible Christmas could spend time in the D-League next season, the Pacers probably don’t have enough depth not to use him. And by signing him to a guaranteed deal when he didn’t have to, it’s clear Bird believes in Christmas.
This feels like a perfect landing spot for the former Syracuse star. He should have a chance to prove himself on a new-look Pacers team.