It Was Up And Down In The NBA For Christmas at New Year’s
INDIANAPOLIS – It is every player’s dream to get called up to the “big leagues.”
But for Rakeem Christmas, the NBA dream only lasted for two days and one game – and he didn’t even get any playing time.
Christmas was called up by the Indiana Pacers before their New Year’s Eve loss to the Milwaukee Bucks 120-116.
But the next day (Jan. 1, 2016) both he and Shayne Whittington were “re-assigned” back to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in the D-League.
Whittington was resting Wednesday night on the Mad Ants charter bus during the long ride from Erie, Pa., to Fort Wayne when his cellphone lit up. The Pacers had just lost to the Chicago Bulls in overtime and, even more concerning, starting center Ian Mahinmi had hobbled off the court after spraining his left knee.
Whittington already knew about Mahinmi — though he has been occupied all season while playing in the NBA Development League, he has stayed connected with everything happening in Indianapolis. However, Whittington didn’t know why coach Frank Vogel was calling.
“‘Hey, tough game today. Ian is out,’” Whittington said, recalling Vogel’s words. “We talked about the game for a little bit, and he said, ‘Well, since Ian’s out, we’re going to call you up. We expect to see you here tomorrow.’”
On the last day of the year, Christmas and Whittington experienced their first official call-ups to the Pacers this season.
The pair belongs to the 15-man Pacers roster, and their nameplates still appear over their locker stalls. However, both players have spent the majority of the season in the D-League — until Thursday night, when they served as emergency frontcourt backups to replace the absent Mahinmi and Jordan Hill (dental work).
In the Pacers’ loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Whittington provided nearly 5 solid minutes in the fourth quarter with one driving layup, two assists and a rebound. The rookie Christmas dressed for the game but did not play.
Though the players spent New Year’s Eve inside Bankers Life, they will begin the new year in Fort Wayne — assigned back to the Mad Ants to continue what now appears as a seasonlong growth process.
“Confidence,” Whittington quickly responded when asked what he has developed most with the Mad Ants. “Definitely confidence.”
When Whittington, the 6-foot-10 power forward, signed a free-agent contract with the Pacers as a rookie last year, he came with the backing of president of basketball operations Larry Bird.
“We’re very high on Whittington,” Bird said last year.
So over the summer, the Pacers showed their commitment by re-signing Whittington but then sent him to the D-League for Mad Ants training camp.
In Fort Wayne, Whittington plays more minutes (31.6) and gets more shot attempts (10.6) than he could dream of having as the fifth big in the Pacers’ rotation. Through 13 games in a more forgiving environment, Whittington has averaged 11.8 points on 39.3 percent shooting. Whittington also grabs 7.8 rebounds per game.
“This game up here, you have the skill to be here, it’s just are you going to use your skills or not?” Whittington said. “I feel like going down there and playing, doing the things and making the mistakes and not being taken out immediately, having a longer leash is making me more confident in my game and in my shot and knowing what my shots are. Knowing what are good shots for me and bad shots for me and having confidence in my game and them having confidence in me.”
Christmas, more than just the “other” big in Fort Wayne, has taken his role seriously as a hard worker and energy player. Among regular Mad Ants players, Christmas leads the team in scoring (16.9) and rebounding (8.4). Even more, Christmas has played as one of the top D-League talents. Through games played through Nov. 30 through Dec. 6, Christmas was named the D-League Performer of the Week.
“I just go out there and try to rebound, get guys open, set screens and be physical,” Christmas said. “Being a big body for the team basically.”
Now back in Fort Wayne, both Christmas and Whittington made a difference in the Mad Ants’ 107-105 victory over the Iowa Energy on Saturday. Christmas played for 30 minutes and contributed six points on 3 of 8 from the field. Whittington was in for 31 minutes and scored 16 points.
“These guys make it easy. Everybody keeps up with Rak and I and congratulate us on good games and tell us what we’re doing wrong,” Whittington said. “We’re still close. It’s just we look at our team and this team as well. … It’s both of our teams. We belong to both.”