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By Conrad Brunner | July 14, 2005
Summer league is much more than a temporary distraction for the Pacers this year.
In addition to the return of All-Star forward Ron Artest, the coaches and training staff will be keeping a watchful eye on center David Harrison and forward Jonathan Bender, both of whom are coming back from injury problems in 2004-05. First-round pick Danny Granger will not participate as a preventive measure while he recovers fully from knee surgery performed during his senior season at New Mexico.
Artest, suspended for most of last season and the playoffs, will make his first appearance in an organized game since Nov. 19, 2004, when the Pacers face Houston at 3 p.m. Friday. It's the first of five games in five days for the Pacers. In addition to his usual duty at small forward, Artest will spend some time at power forward Ė in part because of a temporary lack of manpower at the position, in part because the coaches are curious about the possibility of using him there on occasion during the regular season.
"I don't know about playing time but we're going to slide Ron into multiple positions, mostly at small forward and power forward," said assistant Dan Burke, who'll coach the summer league team. "That's something we want to look at for next season so we're curious to see what Ron does in both positions."
Although short for the position at 6-7, Artest carries 252 pounds on his powerfully built frame and believes he could handle the duty.
"Most of the power forwards in the NBA, as far as weight, I'm right up there with them, and I'm right up there with them in terms of strength, too, so I wouldn't mind playing power forward if I have to," he said. "Right now, they just asked me to play some power forward and I said, 'That's fine.' Mark Aguirre did it. Charles Barkley did it. Zach Randolph plays it and he's about 6-8, so there's a possibility."
Harrison, who missed the final month of the regular season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, reported for this week's mini-camp looking fit and slender and impressed the staff with his energy and effort. Bender, who has missed most of the last two seasons with knee problems, has been working out on his own and will meet the team in Minneapolis.
"They've made great progress," said Coach Rick Carlisle of Bender and Harrison. "We would like to have them on the court to be able to participate and get through everything if possible. That's the ultimate goal. We know both of them are good players and that there are some things they do well on the court. But at this point in time, a lot of this is about getting to a different level of conditioning and health."
Harrison likely will be available to play in every game. The Pacers also are taking two free agent centers, John Edwards and Aleksandar Radojevic, to Minneapolis.
"Dave looks like he's in great shape and he's been working hard. He looks like he's having fun out here," Burke said. "We hope he keeps his focus and keeps playing hard during the games. He looks healthy to me, so I'm going into it as he's playing all five games until I'm told otherwise.
"He looks lighter on his feet and he's looking stronger. He plays with such leverage, he's very good at staying wide and low, that he can move just about anybody around. He's looking good. I just hope he keeps it up."
Harrison said he was anxious to get back into the rhythm of playing games.
"It's like a new knee," he said. "Iím running better, so only time will tell, hopefully on Friday Iíll be out there playing 40 minutes."
Bender has worked extensively on rehabilitation with noted orthopedist Dan Dyrek in Boston and New Orleans and has resumed playing informal full-court games. The Pacers have been encouraged by the reports they've received from afar but are anxious to see the 7-foot forward up close.
Bender is scheduled to play Friday and Sunday only.
"Let's get through Friday and get him in the rotation, probably start him while he's warm, see how it goes, see how it feels after the game, see how it feels the day after," Burke said. "Then, we'll play it by ear. As long as he's looking strong and feeling good, we'll give him a good look."
Granger had arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee in January and returned after sitting out three games. He said he played the rest of his senior season at less than full strength and could play now, if necessary, but the Pacers are taking a more cautious approach.
"It's preventive maintenance," Granger said. "The doctor said I'm fine to play. They're just saying there's no reason to play, no reason to risk it. They just want to make sure my knee is fully strong. It's fine to where I can play, but they want it even stronger. I played with it during my senior year and we won 12 of our last 13 games, so I can play on it. They just don't want me to. It's just a matter of playing it safe."
Carlisle said the plan is to make sure Granger is at 100 percent strength when training camp opens in October, because he has nothing to prove at the summer-league level.
"The reason not to be concerned is we know exactly what's going on," he said. "He needs to gain back 20 percent of the strength in his left leg. He could play right now but we just don't see the reason to risk it. We know he's a good player. He's doing a lot of non-contact work and a lot of skill work, but he's going to have to take the next three or four weeks to get himself ready for training camp.
"Compared to October, what happens right now is not nearly as important, especially if you're dealing with a situation like this."
Bender and Harrison looking good so that's good news. However with Bender it seems he's like the man that fell off the Empire State Building. Passing the 20th floor he says, "Everything is fine so far!"