Editor's Note: With next Monday's media day marking the dawn of Conrad Brunner's 22nd NBA training camp and 19th covering the Pacers, our resident analyst breaks down the roster, position by position, continuing today with a look at the power forwards in the fourth of our five-part series.
After spending recent seasons bulking up in order to hang with the bangers – and suffering unprecedented injury problems – Jermaine O'Neal took a different approach to the offseason, with the goal of getting back to his old self. Which is to say his younger self. The result should be a leaner player better able to exploit his athleticism. That, combined with an enhanced conditioning program that has focused on flexibility and durability, should give him a much better chance of beating the injury bug. It's not like O'Neal has had something chronic. Two seasons ago it was a dislocated shoulder. Last season it was a torn groin muscle. Prior to that, he had missed a total of 20 games in his first four seasons with the Pacers. O'Neal can be penciled in for 20 points, 9-10 rebounds and two blocked shots per game and has improved to a 70-plus percent free-throw shooter. Given the likelihood of smaller lineup combinations, his rebounding will become even more important, particularly on the defensive board. It does appear he will remain a power forward and not shift to center, as has been speculated, with either Al Harrington or Jeff Foster manning the five spot.
Harrington was primarily a power forward in Atlanta but developed as a small forward with the Pacers. Because of his combination of post moves and mid-range shooting, Harrington is likely to find most of his minutes at either small forward or in a re-defined center spot, depending on the look of the matchups. Regardless of the positional designation, he'll be on the floor -- somewhere -- for at least 36 minutes per game.
Maceo Baston, quietly signed away from EuroLeague dynasty Maccabi Tel Aviv, gives the Pacers something they haven't had in awhile – a jump-out-of-the-gym shot-blocker who runs very well. In fact, he and former Maccabi teammate Sarunas Jasikevicius were something like the EuroLeague's version of Montana to Rice (or Manning to Harrison for younger readers) on the fast break. Though lean, Baston has wiry strength to go along with a healthy dose of desire to prove himself as a quality NBA player.
First-round pick Shawne Williams' future is at power forward though he'll need to build strength and experience in order to take his game inside. His long-range shooting ability, athleticism and ball skills will serve him well against generally less agile opponents, but he could need some time to develop both physically and professionally. Initially, most of his minutes could come at small forward.
One of the players acquired from Dallas in the Darrell Armstrong trade, Josh Powell looks like a candidate to be the most pleasant surprise of the preseason. The Udonis Haslem look-a-like has been very impressive in the players' informal workouts, demonstrating a respectable mid-range shot. An energy player who works hard, defensively, Powell could push hard for a roster spot.
After two frustrating seasons, O'Neal appears poised for a very strong year. He not only wants to prove himself capable of leading the team back to elite status, but to show the injury problems of the past couple of years were an aberration. Though a 10-year veteran, he's still just 27 years old (he turns 28 next month) with a bright future as one of the league's most productive big men. Because of the depth of the roster in general and the power forward position in particular, O'Neal won't have to do it alone, but he will have to do it if the Pacers are to rise to the top in the East.