2021-22 Record: 25-57
Introduction & Overview
The Indiana Pacers enter the 2022-23 season as everyone’s favorite punching bag. The organization, in recent vintage, has been unwilling to execute an all-out tank like the 76ers in the Hinkie era or the current Sam Presti-led iteration of the Oklahoma City Thunder. This year is shaping up to be a notable exception to that history. The Pacers will begin the season without any reliable small forwards on the roster and a dearth of quality wing defenders. Buddy Hield will likely start at that spot in what will be a three-guard starting lineup of Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin, Buddy Hield, Jalen Smith, and Myles Turner. The chatter in league circles (as reported by just about every reputable NBA media member) is that Turner will be traded sooner rather than later. Of course, it should be noted, that we’ve heard that story before and, at least for now, Turner remains on the roster. Despite their tanking status heading into the season, there’s still plenty of potential for this to be an interesting team to watch. Tyrese Haliburton is as pleasurable a watch on his best nights as there is in the league. His combination of highly effective, yet slightly awkward step-backs from deep and aerial passing attack is enough to hold my attention. And as long as Rick Carlisle—maybe the NBA’s least fun curmudgeon—doesn’t overcoach the team into the basketball version of a ground-and-pound offense, the Pacers should be a fast-paced and transition-heavy unit. One assumes a conservative organization like the Pacers won’t have the stones to shut down budding young players like Haliburton and Mathurin late in the season, which could help maintain the team’s appeal, even after the likely Turner trade. That said, young teams tend to be bad and bad teams tend to devolve into unwatchability late in the season. The accumulation of losses can tend to darken the spirits of even the most joyful athletes. Get your eyes on the Pacers early and bet big on Haliburton and Mathurin.
It’s Tyrese Haliburton‘s show. In many ways, the entire season is Haliburton’s show. He is, as of now, the team’s best player and a young player whose preternatural feel and well-honed skills have allowed him to overcome a thin frame and sub-elite level athleticism. This season is all about finding the limits of Haliburton’s scoring and shot-creation ability. Haliburton has already proven to be an exciting playmaker, there is little question about his passing and vision. But scoring and playmaking are tied together. If teams stumble upon a way to neutralize Haliburton’s playmaking, maybe by switching pick and rolls, thereby forcing him to be more of a scorer, can he answer the call? What happens when the Toronto Raptors stick OG Anunoby on him only to switch Pascal Siakam on to him only for him to be passed off to Precious Achiuwa? How will Haliburton handle elite length and athleticism? These are mostly questions for the future and hopefully, future playoff series. Most teams won’t have the personnel to frustrate Haliburton for an entire game and there should be no shortage of opportunities for him to wrack up points, assists, and steals this season. He’s at worst a late first-round pick in fantasy drafts and has a higher upside than that if he can maintain his elite efficiency with increased usage.
TJ McConnell is a worthy streaming option for steals and assists and will be a viable deep league backup point guard if he gets enough minutes, but that’s the upper bound of his utility.
Alongside Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin is the future of the Indiana Pacers. Myles Turner is not long for the team and would anyone really be surprised if the Pacers moved Chris Duarte in a future-focused deal that returned a first-round draft pick? Mathurin and Haliburton will be given plenty of room to test, show off, and expand their games this season. The Pacers drafted Mathurin with the sixth pick in the 2022 NBA draft out of The University of Arizona and, although most of the summer league buzz went to Keegan Murray and Paolo Banchero, Mahturin was also a Vegas standout. In three games in the Vegas Summer League, Mathurin averaged 19 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal. Through three games of the preseason, Mathurin has averaged 20 points, 3 rebounds, and 0.7 steals, with shooting splits of 52/22/90. Mathurin shot 38% over two seasons at Arizona and 38% in his three Vegas Summer League games. I would expect him to be in the low to mid-30s as a three-point shooter as a rookie, but the percentages should only rise from there. Mathurin is a dark horse Rookie of the Year candidate and the kind of score-first guard the Pacers need. The question for his development will be how much he can grow as a playmaker.
Buddy Hield is a natural shooting guard who I expect to start at small forward this season. Hield had a down shooting season last year, converting just 36% from three. It was the first time in his career he shot below 39% from long range. Here are how his numbers shook out overall last season: 15.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 0.9 steals, with shooting splits of 40/36/87. Hield has never been great from two-point range, which is why he’s a career 43% from the field. Given his shooting pedigree, I would expect him to bounce back from deep and, even more intriguing were the new wrinkles Hield showed after he was traded to Indiana. In 26 games with the Pacers last season, Hield averaged 18.2 points 5.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1 steal, while shooting 44% from the field, 36% from three, and 88% from the line. I love that uptick in assists and the eye test backs up those numbers. It was not uncommon for Hield to uncork a lefty cross-court pass to an open shooter. If those numbers hold over a full season, you’re getting the best version of Buddy Hield on a team with plenty of shots and usage to go around. He could be a sneaky upside swing if you’re in need of points, threes, and maybe even a good source of assists later in the draft.
Chris Duarte is the other fantasy notable at the guard spot. He’s a worse player with maybe no more upside than Hield in my view, but he should certainly be on your watchlist. He’s had trouble staying healthy, however. Unless you’re in a deep league, he’s probably just a streamer.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Pacers are mostly devoid of small forward—hence Buddy Hield starting and likely closing games at the three. Aaron Nesmith is the small forward I would keep an eye on. He was the non-draft pick prize of the Malcolm Brogdon trade and, given his youth and the teams tanking status, he should get an opportunity to establish himself in the league and show that he’s finally capable of making shots at the NBA level. Terry Taylor could also be a fun late-season streaming option or more. I don’t think either player will have a regular enough role to be held on your roster all season, but injuries could open up increased playing time for both. Both players are undersized for the position and come with fairly significant deficiencies. Nesmith is a live-wire athlete who can surprise you with chase-down blocks and thunderous dunks, but he shot just 27% from three last season. Taylor is a 6-foot-5 player whose shot profile and shooting efficiency (61% from the field last season) looks like that of a seven-footer. Just keep an eye on their progress throughout the season.
Jalen Smith is expected to be the opening night starter for the Pacers and, barring injury, will be a viable fantasy asset in all formats. Yahoo ranks Smith 82nd while Basketball Monster ranks him 69th. Smith shot 37% on 83 threes during his time in Indiana. If he can continue to hone his stroke, he’ll be a decent option for points, rebounds, threes, and respectable, but not spectacular shooting percentages.
I see Isaiah Jackson as more of a center, but it appears that the Pacers will give him minutes at both frontcourt spots. I’d assume that Jackson would take over the starting center spot once Myles Turner is traded. Smith and Jackson should be the frontcourt of the future, barring future draft picks (cough cough Victor Wembanyama) or free agents supplanting them. Jackson was one of the best per-minute blocks and steals players in the league last year. The only question is how many minutes will he play before Turner is traded. Smith is the safer option, but Jackson has the higher upside, especially when you consider how quickly blocks can disappear after the top of the draft.
Oshae Brissett is a solid role player, but I don’t expect him to get enough minutes to be more than a streamer early in the season.
Myles Turner will start at center for as long as he’s on the roster. He’s a great source of blocks and out-of-position threes. He’s not a great rebounder and his shooting percentage is lower than you’d expect. If he’s playing at an all-defense level and being set up repeatedly by Tyrese Haliburton he could have a big fantasy impact this season. Maybe having premiere guard play, at least when Haliburton is on the court will help him repeat as a 50% shooter from the field. I already touched on Isaiah Jackson, who I expect to get plenty of minutes at center. Daniel Theis and Goga Bitadze should be deep league streamers only this season.