July 8, 2006
Hidden gems are keys for Pacers
Team's resurgence may hinge on deals for underused players with big potential
By Mark Montieth
Steve Nash was once a two-year NBA veteran who had started all of 11 games. He was so ordinary that he was traded for guys named Bubba Wells and Martin Muursepp, the draft rights to Pat Garrity and a future first-round draft pick.
It seemed illogical then that he would become a two-time Most Valuable Player, as he is today. It seems illogical today that he was once so expendable.
Nash represents a breed of player who always exists somewhere within the recesses of the NBA: the hidden gem. He's the player who hasn't accomplished much, and might even be regarded as a disappointment, but will sparkle under the lights of more experience and playing time.
Such players represent the best hope for the Indiana Pacers to make a major advancement from the mediocrity of last season's 41-41 record. They aren't bad enough to get a high draft pick. They don't have room under the salary cap to sign a major free agent. Blockbuster trades that bring an established star are always difficult to execute.
So, their best opportunities to improve will be to find Nash-like players who don't command high trade value now but could become valuable commodities.
"They're always out there," Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said. "Always."
Walsh has experience in this commodity, trading for it frequently during his tenure as the team's primary deal-maker. He sent a solid role player, Dale Davis, to Portland for an unproven Jermaine O'Neal in the summer of 2000. O'Neal had never averaged more than 4.5 points in four seasons but has become a five-time All-Star with the Pacers.
Walsh also traded for Ron Artest and Brad Miller when they were in an emerging stage of their careers. Both became All-Stars as Pacers, although both were later traded -- Miller because his contract negotiation spiraled beyond what the Pacers were willing to pay and Artest because he demanded a trade.
Walsh also once traded an established but past-his-prime forward, Herb Williams, to Dallas for unproven Detlef Schrempf and came out ahead.
The Pacers were on the short side of such deals with Primoz Brezec, a first-round draft pick who got minimal playing time during his first three seasons because he was stuck behind more-experienced centers. Charlotte took him in the expansion draft and his scoring average immediately jumped from 1.6 points to 13 as a full-time starter.
Young, talented players who are on winning teams and stuck behind veterans are most likely to become the future Nashes and O'Neals. Finding them, however, isn't a simple process. Some young players can become much better, some can not.
Walsh often performed his scouting duties in early pre-game warm-ups, when a player was on the court working by himself or with an assistant coach.
That's how Walsh became convinced of O'Neal's potential.
"You can tell their skills, you can tell if they're quick, you can tell what their shooting's like," Walsh said. "You can tell the basics.
"It's also a matter of watching how they go about it. You can tell if a guy's working at it or not. Players don't know if you're watching them in an environment like that. If the player's out there alone, you see if the guy's really working or going through the motions."
Some players get adequate playing time but are held back because they don't fit a coach's system. The Pacers hope Marquis Daniels, whom they will officially acquire in a trade for Austin Croshere next week after the NBA's transaction moratorium passes, will fit that description.
Daniels flourished as a favorite of former Dallas coach Don Nelson but fell out of favor with Nelson's replacement, Avery Johnson.
The Pacers can only hope that trade works out as well as their last deal with Dallas. In 1989 they sent an eight-year veteran in Williams to the Mavericks for Schrempf, who, like Daniels, showed promise but was stuck in a reserve role.
Schrempf averaged 8.5 points his third season in Dallas. In 41/2 seasons with the Pacers, he twice was named Sixth Man of the Year and then averaged 19.1 points while starting 60 games in 1992-93.
"I remember going to see him play once and he had a great game," Walsh said. "I thought, 'My God, this guy's coming off the bench. He'd be starting for us.' Instead of being a 12-point scorer I knew he could be 20."
The Pacers wouldn't mind trading for more Schrempfs and O'Neals but aren't counting on it. They'll settle for players who bring solid improvement.
"I don't know if you can depend on getting a J.O., but you can get players who can play for you for a long time and fill an important role," Walsh said.
Five who flourished
A look at five NBA players who started slowly but made dramatic improvement after finding a new opportunity with another team.
• Boris Diaw: First-round draft pick averaged 4.6 points over two seasons for bad Atlanta teams, but 13.3 for very good Phoenix team last season after trade.
• Steve Nash: Two-time league MVP averaged 3.3 points as a rookie and then 9.1 before he was traded to Dallas. Played four seasons before his scoring average cracked double figures.
• Jermaine O'Neal: Rode Portland's bench for four seasons, never averaging more than 4.5 points, before trade to Pacers gave him new life. Voted Most Improved Player in 2002 and has been named to five All-Star teams.
• Ben Wallace: Undrafted out of Division II college, was a throw-in to two trades before landing in Detroit in his fifth season. Went on to become four-time Defensive Player of the Year and recently signed four-year, $60 million contract with Chicago.
• Gerald Wallace: Averaged just 2.0 points in his third NBA season, but got a fresh start with Charlotte's expansion team. Averaged 15.2 points last season, ranking first in steals and fourth in field goal percentage.
Five who could break out
A look at players who haven't done much in their careers so far, but appear to have the potential to break out given the opportunity.
• Andris Biedrins: The 6-11 Latvian forward has averaged 3.7 points over first two seasons. Entered NBA too soon at 18, but at 20 still has plenty of upside. Produced double-double in first start as a rookie. Was 11th pick in 2004 draft.
• Monta Ellis: Point guard was member of last class of high school kids able to jump to the NBA. Averaged 6.8 points in 49 games for Golden State, and scored 27 in season finale against Utah. Warriors will trade Derek Fisher to Utah and appear willing to trade Baron Davis to open more playing time for Ellis.
• Luke Jackson: Forward has barely played for Cleveland because of a back injury his rookie year and a broken wrist this past season. Averaging just 2.7 points after two seasons, but there are reasons he was the 10th pick in the 2004 draft.
• Yaroslav Korolev: Nineteen-year-old Russian forward played just 24 games for Clippers as a rookie, scoring all of 27 points. Not likely to get much playing time behind strong frontline, but might live up to draft position (12th overall) somewhere else.
• Darko Milicic: Considered a bust after two seasons in Detroit when he averaged less than two points a game, but forward showed promise by averaging 7.6 points over 30 games after trade to Orlando last season. Further breakouts could come for second pick in 2003 draft.
-- Mark Montieth