Pacers in Eastern Conference Finals shows why Spurs should be patient with lottery picks

Former high draft picks playing big roles for Indiana as they seek finals appearance

Indiana Pacers forward Aaron Nesmith (23) shoots over New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) during the second half of Game 6 in an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Friday, May 17, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) (Michael Conroy, Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SAN ANTONIO – The Indiana Pacers’ appearance in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals is an example as to why the San Antonio Spurs should continue their course and build through the NBA Draft, as opposed to swinging big through a trade or free agency.

The Pacers, coming off an impressive 130-109 victory Sunday over the New York Knicks in Game 7 in Madison Square Garden, will now face the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday night.

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So what can Spurs fans glean from the current success of its former ABA brethren?

Well, Indiana led the NBA with 123.3 points per game in the regular season, the sixth-highest average in league history and set a record by reaching 140 points 11 times. They finished the No. 6 seed in the East.

“I think it’s just the old-school way of thinking that you can’t play this fast in the playoffs, but I think opportunistically you can do it. I think if we’re able to get stops, of course we can,” said Indiana’s fifth-year guard Tyrese Haliburton, who has developed into one of the NBA’s most outstanding players.

The team made its jump into NBA Finals contention thanks to the outstanding play of Haliburton while also receiving immense help from former NBA lottery picks Obi Toppin, Aaron Nesmith and former Texas Longhorn big man, Myles Turner.

And while the Pacers have currently Haliburton, the Spurs have their own franchise player to build around, in the transcendent talent Victor Wembanyama, who has shown he only needs quality play around him to bring the team back to its previous championship levels.

The Pacers’ former lottery picks each blazed their own path to get playing time in these playoffs, with two of them shunned aside and pushed out quickly by the team that initially drafted them. It’s that reminder that is of the utmost importance for the Spurs, the Alamo City and its fans as they prepare to make the No. 4 and No. 8 selections in the upcoming 2024 NBA Draft.

Aaron Nesmith, Rd. 1 Pick 14 in 2020 by Boston

One player who has come to make a huge splash in the 2024 NBA playoffs is forward Aaron Nesmith, who will be playing next against the team that initially drafted him.

Nesmith was the 14th overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft by the Celtics after playing collegiately for the Vanderbilt Commodores. With Boston, it was difficult for Nesmith to crack the rotation until injuries and COVID protocols created a way to playing time. In his two years he played a total of 98 games, starting four, while averaging just 12.8 minutes per game.

It was his performance in those limited minutes, however, that caught the attention of Indiana, who acquired him in a multi-player trade for guard Malcolm Brogdon.

Nesmith, now 24, has since seen his minutes rise in his two years with Indiana, averaging 27 minutes this past season while starting 47 of the 72 regular season games he played in.

The Pacers are now the beneficiaries of that development, as he scored 19 points, making two three-pointers and grabbing four rebounds in the decisive Game 7 victory over the Knicks.

Obi Toppin, Rd. 1 Pick 8 in 2020 by New York

Toppin is another player who is making significant contributions for Indiana after being cast aside by his former team.

The series win over New York must have been especially meaningful for Toppin, who was drafted No. 8 back in 2020 by the Knickerbockers. He played three seasons for the team, averaging just 14.6 minutes per contest before finally being traded to the Pacers for just two future second-round picks.

Indiana Pacers' Obi Toppin (1) goes up to dunk during the second half of Game 1 in an NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the New York Knicks Monday, May 6, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

With Indiana, Toppin has become an important part of their bench unit, averaging 10 points and four rebounds while shooting 40% from three-point range.

Toppin’s growth on the floor is another example of how prudent it is for franchises like the Spurs and Indiana to stay the course, and allow prospects the chance to improve over time.

Myles Turner, Rd. 1 Pick 11 in 2015 by Indiana

On Sunday, Turner played 33 minutes, scored 17 points and grabbed five rebounds while totaling four blocks in the blowout victory. Turner, originally drafted by the Pacers, entered the league averaging 10.3 and 5.5 rebounds in his rookie year.

The Pacers starting center has since grown to be an immense offensive weapon, averaging 17.1 points per game while shooting 35% from deep, all while providing good interior defense. He even became the team’s all-time blocks leader with his 1,246th block, surpassing the team’s previous record set by Jermaine O’Neal.

New York Knicks guards Josh Hart (3) and Jalen Brunson look on as Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) shoots during the first half of Game 7 in an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, Sunday, May 19, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson) (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Turner’s growth as a steady performer has given the team another weapon to count on nightly, while providing a now veteran presence.

“We have a historic offense, obviously, but this guy (Haliburton) got things rolling and everybody kind of just followed suit,” Turner said to the Associated Press. “To do that on the road in the Garden in Game 7 obviously is phenomenal, but I think this is what we’ve been doing all season long and we were able to show it on the biggest stage.”

Spurs have No. 4 and No. 8 selections in 2024 NBA Draft

There’s been immense discussion from Spurs fans about what they should do now that they have two lottery picks in the June 27 NBA Draft. The team is armed with a treasure trove of future selections and the ability to create necessary cap space.

But what the Indiana Pacers has shown, is that there are clearly diamonds in the rough in every draft, including a 2024 draft this is considered to be weak.

So, no matter who the Spurs ultimately end up taking, it will be imperative that the team gives the prospect a chance to grow and develop over multiple seasons, despite the rush to win now with Wembanyama.

The best hope for the franchise is that the team hits on its two top selections, placing quality rotation players at the very least into the pipeline on rookie-scale contracts.

The Spurs will also certainly do its due diligence, however, and attempt to acquire the perfect sidekick to still pair with Wembanyama.

“Of course, I want to win as soon as possible, and I want the team results to be there, but I didn’t expect to be champions in my first year,” Wembanyama said while accepting his Rookie of the Year award. “This is one of the representations of our progression throughout the year and the efforts we all made on the court.”


About the Author

Ben Spicer is a digital journalist who works the early morning shift for KSAT.

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