#CrystalBasketball: Ranking the Indiana Pacers for 2017-18

How does every NBA player stack up heading into 2017-18, based solely on the level at which we expect them to play during the upcoming season?

That’s the question 16 NBA Math staff members and contributors sought to answer, ranking each and every player in the sport’s premier league on a 1-to-12 scale and then seeing who emerged with the highest averages. The distant past was irrelevant. Long-term potential doesn’t matter. Only what could come to pass in 2017-18 is factored in, assuming health for those currently healthy and full recoveries from those presently injured. For example, Brandon Knight will still be included in this analysis; we just assumed he’d already completed his rehab for the torn ACL and now has that as a prior portion of his overall injury history.

All players were graded on the following scale by each evaluator, and ties between players with identical averages were broken by sorting the 16 scores from best to worst and propping up the men who had the highest mark at any point in the top-down progression:

  1. Shouldn’t Get Minutes
  2. End-of-Bench Pieces
  3. Depth Pieces
  4. High-End Backups
  5. Low-End Starters
  6. Solid Starters
  7. High-End Starters, Non-All-Stars
  8. All-Star Candidates
  9. All-NBA Candidates, Non-MVP Candidates
  10. Lesser MVP Candidates
  11. MVP Frontrunners
  12. Best Player in the League (only one player could earn this grade on each ballot)

Journey with us team by team as we unveil the entirety of these rankings, culminating in a look at every player set to suit up for the 2017-18 campaign.

Today’s featured squad? The Indiana Pacers, who lost Paul George this offseason and are now firmly entering into a rebuild centered around Myles Turner.

14. Damien Wilkins: 1.40

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 37
  • Position: SG/SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 14.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks (for Greensboro Swarm)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (Tim Stubbs)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Damien Wilkins has served as little more than a journeyman since leaving the NBA back in 2013. He’s played all over the world, including an All-Star season in what’s now the G League. But that accolade-earning campaign came back in 2014-15 with the Iowa Energy; he wasn’t nearly the same player during his most recent go-round with the Greensboro Swarm.

The scoring and passing were still there, along with some improved shooting numbers. But so too were additional turnovers and a plethora of fouls that stemmed from his increasingly porous defense. The 37-year-old Wilkins simply can’t keep up on the preventing end, which is troubling when that was arguably his better side of the ball throughout his first NBA stint.

So why’s he on the roster? The veteran swingman can capably switch on screens, and he already understands the basic fundamentals of the Indiana scheme, thanks to his mutual time on the Seattle SuperSonics with head coach Nate McMillan.

13. Ike Anigbogu: 1.81

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 18
  • Position: PF/C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 4.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 0.2 assists, 0.2 steals, 1.2 blocks, 18.89 TPA (for UCLA Bruins)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (Dan Favale)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Please don’t expect Ike Anigbogu to do anything on offense during his rookie season, unless he’s demoted to the G League and can simply overpower his opponents. He struggled to make any sort of impact as a freshman for UCLA, occasionally dropping in a sweet lefty bucket or finishing with a wide-open slam but largely looking awkward and uncomfortable with his touches in the post. His shooting stroke is also completely absent, as evidenced by his 53.5 percent clip at the charity stripe.

However, Anigbogu could make an immediate defensive impact.

The 18-year-old is still growing into his frame, but his remarkable quickness moving side to side allows him to provide excellent help defense and reject plenty of shots. Don’t be fooled by the meager 1.2 rejections per game for the Bruins, since those came while he played just 13 minutes in his average appearance. In fact, his block percentage (8.8 percent) ranked 69th in the country among those qualified for the shot-swatting leaderboard.

12. Joe Young: 1.81

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 25
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 2.1 points, 0.5 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.1 steals, minus-19.69 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Largely working out of the pick-and-roll or pulling up from downtown to create his looks off the bounce, Joe Young has flashed scoring tools during his first two seasons with the Pacers. Every once in a while, he catches fire and explodes for a couple buckets off the pine, as he did when dropping a 12-spot in just under 10 minutes against the Golden State Warriors midway through his sophomore season.

But the total package isn’t there, and what remains runs rife with inconsistency.

So long as Young struggles on defense and fails to assert himself as a capable facilitator, he has to get buckets. And that’s a tough ask for a player who shot just 36.1 percent from the field and 21.7 percent from beyond the arc during his second professional campaign. Unless he catches fire and sustains that success, Young’s minutes could keep slipping away.

11. T.J. Leaf: 2.50

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 20
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks, 188.57 TPA (for UCLA Bruins)
  • Highest Grade: 4 (Nick Birdsong)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (Ryan Jarvis)

While the world was captivated by Lonzo Ball’s exploits, another UCLA freshman put up some sensational numbers. As you may have guessed, that was T.J. Leaf, who dominated across the board and on both ends, rising up draft boards all the while. Since 2011, only 19 first-year players have produced superior TPAs, and he ranks No. 6 in the last two years:

  1. Lonzo Ball, 285.83
  2. Ben Simmons, 251.44
  3. Josh Jackson, 207.91
  4. Jamal Murray, 202.37
  5. Bam Adebayo, 202.32
  6. T.J. Leaf, 188.57

Defense might be more problematic for Leaf in the NBA, when he can’t body up against smaller players. He’s also not skilled enough to score with his back to the basket at first—not with much frequency, at least. But his springiness, stretchy shooting and passing out of the high post should allow him to make a charge at one of the coveted All-Rookie spots.

As long as the Pacers give him minutes, of course.

9(tie). Al Jefferson: 3.13

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 32
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 8.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-55.8 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Tony East)

What a fall from grace it’s been for Al Jefferson.

His defense—what little of it existed without the constant supervision of Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford—was never going to age particularly well. Not given his plodding style and lack of mobility on the interior. But he was supposed to remain a bruising presence who could dazzle defenders with a dizzying array of post moves from the left block. That much should’ve been timeless.

And it is. Jefferson is now coming off a season in which he scored 0.98 points per post-up possession, which left him in the 78.9 percentile. So long as he remains at that level, the Pacers will be able to find creative uses for him while pairing him with teammates who can cover up his glaring weaknesses and defensive gaffes.

9(tie). Glenn Robinson III: 3.13

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: SG/SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-39.89 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Brian Sampson)

Glenn Robinson III finally started developing into a legitimate three-and-D contributor during the 2016-17 season. Though for everyone to buy in, he’ll have to do so for a larger sample than 69 appearances with, on average, just 20.7 minutes played. Only three of our 16 panelists viewed him as a top-tier backup, with the rest thinking of him as either a depth piece or end-of-bench player.

Thanks to his athleticism (the dude did win the Slam Dunk Contest) and willingness to switch between shooting guards and small forwards, Robinson held his own defensively unless he was caught guarding a smaller ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. He improved almost across the board, with the largest strides coming against spot-up shooters, whether they were just waiting patiently on the wings or running through traffic to extricate themselves from his supervision.

On offense, he now has to prove the shooting is sustainable. Jumping from 43.0/37.8/69.2 to 46.7/39.2/71.1 in just one year is reasonable for a 23-year-old, but it requires more proof before inspiring unmitigated belief.

8. Domantas Sabonis: 3.19

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 21
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, minus-159.61 TPA (for Oklahoma City Thunder)
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)

A “prize” acquired in the Paul George trade, Domantas Sabonis didn’t exactly experience much success during his rookie season. Many first-year bigs struggle as they adjust to the trials and tribulations of the NBA calendar, but this power forward took that to the proverbial next level. Just look at where he placed among other first-year players in this TPA breakdown:

But reasons for hope do exist.

Sabonis, as his last name might suggest, is a skilled player out of the post. He may not have his father’s passing acumen, but he already boasts an advanced set of low-block moves that should enable him to find more success on the offensive end. A bit more shooting from the outside would help as well, especially if the 21-year-old continues to struggle on defense. He might appear to be only slightly below average in the above graphic, but keep in mind that big men typically have inflated scores in defensive points saved.

7. Lance Stephenson: 3.31

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 27
  • Position: SG/SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-39.03 TPA (for New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers)
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Louie Vicchiollo)

Apparently, Lance Stephenson was born ready to play for the Pacers. He just can’t quit them.

The 27-year-old is a talented rebounder out of the backcourt who plays with relentless energy. He can burst to the basket off the dribble and finish with a flush. He can dart around screens while running pick-and-rolls before finding creative passing lanes to set up his teammates for easy buckets. He can buckle down defensively and pester opponents into mistakes—often, it seems, through sheer force of will.

But he’s not exactly consistent. With the good comes plenty of turnovers, frequent fouling, relatively inefficient scoring and a lack of spacing from a crucial wing slot. Those traits all curtail his overall value, and he can quickly go from looking like he’s turned a corner and become a solid starter to functioning as a player who has little business on an NBA roster.

6. Cory Joseph: 3.94

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 26
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 9.3 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-31.62 TPA (for Toronto Raptors)
  • Highest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)

After a miserable 2015-16, Cory Joseph bounced back nicely during his final season with the Toronto Raptors. His shot returned (especially from downtown, where he hit 35.6 percent of his looks one season after connecting at a 27.3 percent clip), and he became more involved as a playmaker off the pine. That’s likely the same role he’ll fill in Indiana, backing up Darren Collison with steady production that extends to both ends of the floor.

Joseph is never going to become the standout the San Antonio Spurs once imagined he could grow into. The Pacers, after all, just acquired him for nothing more than Emir Preldzic—a 30-year-old swingman who will likely never play in the NBA after he was selected at No. 57 in the 2009 draft.

But he can still morph into one of the league’s top backups, perhaps even playing like a starting-caliber 1-guard, as two of our voters projected.

5. Bojan Bogdanovic: 4.00

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 28
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 13.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-125.85 TPA (for Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards)
  • Highest Grade: 6 (Nick Birdsong)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Andrew Bailey)

“We need to add shooting to our roster,” McMillan said after the Pacers signed Bojan Bogdanovic, per IndyStar.com’s Nate Taylor. “The small forward position is open. We have Glenn [Robinson III] there, but we need to fill that spot. There’s still some options and whatever starting lineup we come up with, I think this group is going to support each other.”

Given the need for shooting around Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young, Bogdanovic should earn the starting job. He’s coming off a year in which he drilled 44.5 percent of his field-goal attempts and 36.7 percent of his triples, all the while showcasing an ability to work off the dribble and create his own offense. His numbers after a move to the Washington Wizards were even better, as those percentages soared to 45.7 and 39.1, respectively.

But his profile isn’t all rosy. Bogdanovic is a putrid defender who will put even more responsibility on the interior stoppers’ collective shoulders. Whether he’s matched up with guards or forwards, he’ll have a distinct weakness. His lack of foot speed will come back to bite him against the former, and his jarring lack of strength will hinder him when matched up with the latter.

4. Darren Collison: 4.31

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 30
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 13.2 points, 2.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-61.18 TPA (for Sacramento Kings)
  • Highest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)

Darren Collison isn’t a particularly glamorous player, but it’s telling that all 16 of our voters viewed him either as a top-end backcup or a low-end starter. The world knows exactly what he is: a serviceable starting point guard who lacks too much upside now that his age hasn’t started to take away some of the end-to-end quickness that once made him such a blur.

This veteran floor general doesn’t offer much on defense, but he makes up for those deficiencies with a stellar offensive game that’s somehow been allowed to become rather underrated. Shooting 41.9 percent from beyond the arc is impressive enough. Doing so while recording 4.6 assists and just 1.7 turnovers makes him quite the useful point guard.

Let’s dig deeper, though.

Last year, Collison was one of only 13 qualified players to post an assist percentage of at least 24 percent and a turnover percentage no higher than 13 percent. Add in his deep shooting—thanks to round-number bias, we’ll set the cut-off at 40 percent—and he joins a fraternity that includes only himself, Stephen Curry, Mike Conley and Kyrie Irving. Complaining about that company is a tough task.

3. Thaddeus Young: 4.81

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 29
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 11.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 67.04 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (Brian Sampson)

Thaddeus Young is no longer the fringe All-Star he’d served as with the Philadelphia 76ers during his prime years. He is, however, a useful player who’s learning how to add new elements to his game.

Though the years in which he served as a devastating homing missile in transition who plays with his sights set on the rim have now passed, he’s started to shoot three-pointers. While taking 1.6 per game (the second-highest mark of his career), he connected at a 38.1 percent clip (an actual career high). And though he started to decline on the glass, he remained quite active on the defensive end, both protecting the rim when foes pulled a true big far from the hoop and constantly jumping into passing lanes.

Young has become a role player—a glue guy, if you will.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Not when he can still add substantial value in so many different ways.

2. Victor Oladipo: 5.31

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 25
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-58.86 TPA (for Oklahoma City Thunder)
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (Brian Sampson)

It’s still hard to believe the Pacers traded Paul George for only Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo with no draft picks coming back in their direction. For them to save face and expedite the rebuild, this Indiana product needs to experience a massive breakout during the 2017-18 campaign. He’s already making a hefty sum throughout the foreseeable future, and he must now justify it by shoring up his three-point shooting, playmaking and defensive abilities.

It could happen. Though his lone year with the Oklahoma City Thunder was disappointing, The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy helped shine a light on the shifting circumstances that led to his floundering:

OKC seemed like the perfect destination to harness the 24-year-old’s upside. He had dabbled in the combo guard role enough that Billy Donovan could slot him as a secondary ball handler, and his leaping abilities would be showcased better paired with two already-established superstars. He wouldn’t be shoehorned into a focal-point role any longer. Then Durant left for Golden State.

KD’s free agency was a dropping Tetris piece — lined up perfectly to fit the gap — that turned sideways at the last second…

Here, as second fiddle to Russell Westbrook, Dipo had little choice but to try his hand at spot-up shooting. The former went on to claim a record-high usage rate, while his counterpart left the isolation game behind. In its place were the most catch-and-shoot attempts of Oladipo’s career. He attacked the rim less than ever, released the majority of his shots after two seconds or less of possession time, and used a greater percentage of his touches for 3-point attempts than Russ did. To the non-shooting shooting guard’s credit, there was improvement. Oladipo ended the season shooting 36 percent from deep and found rhythm with the corner 3s at 43.8 percent altogether. He was OKC’s second-leading scorer.

Oladipo obviously doesn’t get to play with two superstars in Indiana. But he is now working in front of a hometown crowd that will inspire him to strive for greater things, and he should get to play more on the ball than he ever could in 2016-17. The best may be yet to come, making the last go-round look like nothing more than a one-off, context-driven aberration.

1. Myles Turner: 6.56

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 21
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.1 blocks, 111.69 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 8 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)

Everything points toward stardom for Myles Turner, though he might not achieve truly celestial status as early as 2017-18. He’s still just 21 years old, so exercising patience remains the smart alternative to buying into overwhelmingly lofty expectations.

But still, let’s get excited.

With Paul George out of the picture, the Pacers are now Turner’s team. He’ll get to handle the ball so much more frequently after seeing his usage rate stagnate during his sophomore season, and that should help him continue to post bigger and bigger numbers with a growing arsenal of interior moves and an increasingly deadly long-range stroke. Lest we forget, the former Texas standout saw his three-point marksmanship rise from 21.4 percent as a rookie to 34.8 percent on more attempts as a sophomore.

And it gets better.

Turner has already stopped fouling so frequently and doesn’t get caught flat-footed in the pick-and-roll nearly as often. He’s also more disciplined on the interior, where he forced opponents to miss more shots than they made while he was stationed at the rim. The center is on the brink of two-way stardom, and he’ll be given every opportunity to push past the inevitable hurdles throughout his third professional campaign.

Who’s rated too high? Who are we selling short? Join the conversation using #CrystalBasketball on Twitter.

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math or NBA.com.

Many thanks to our entire panel of voters: Andrew BaileyArjun BaradwajNick BirdsongMichael BrockTony EastDan FavaleAdam FromalRyan JarvisJordan McGillisTom RendeBrian SampsonAdam SpinellaEric SpyropolousTim StubbsFrank UrbinaLouis Vicchiollo

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