If Goga Bitadze can’t be a playable backup center from Day 1, the Indiana Pacers are Goga-ing to be in trouble.
Many writers and fans alike (myself included) gave the Indiana Pacers grief for drafting another center, Goga Bitadze, in the first round (Brandon Clarke might yet prove that assessment correct, but that’s another story). Indiana already had a very good player on a good contract in Myles Turner, and had Domantas Sabonis playing the backup 5 at a near 6th man of the year level. Taking a 3rd-string center when so many exciting prospects had fallen was … frustrating, to say the least.
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This, of course, was all before Kevin Pritchard announced that the Pacers were (finally) going to start Turner and Sabonis together. The pair of 23-year-old big men represents the hope for the Pacers’ future with Victor Oladipo, but are both nominally centers. By starting both, the Pacers are leaning into the “screw it, play your best 5” attitude. In the post Golden State War-pocalypse NBA, the obsession with going small is waning. Now’s the time to try Turner and Sabonis. There’s an important ripple effect of this, however.
Indiana has exactly 1 other center on the roster outside of Turner and Sabonis: Goga Bitadze. The next closest thing to a center beyond Goga would be… T.J. Leaf? Maybe Alize Johnson, if you believe in ultra small ball and also in Alize’s potential? Neither of those are particularly good options at the 5, and might be disastrous. This means that, if Indiana wants to succeed this year, they almost *need* Goga Bitadze to be playable at worst.
After signing JaKarr Sampson, the Pacers’ roster currently stands at 15. While it’s possible there will be another roster move or two to come with the partially guaranteed guys, as it stands, Goga is going to be critical to the Pacers’ success. He does have some advantages coming in, at the very least. Most college prospects come in having played either against teenagers in AAU-style iso offenses or against inferior talents in motion style systems.
Bitadze is coming in with experience and success against grown men in the EuroLeague at the professional level. His biggest skills (shot blocking, scoring touch, physicality) should translate to the NBA. He’ll get playing time in Indiana. The stars have aligned for Goga to have a real shot right off the bat. There are obstacles to overcome, though.
Rookie big men often struggle adjusting to the physicality of NBA bigs, the speed of the game, and the intricacies of defending NBA offenses. It’s rare to see a big man come in and be a positive player his rookie year. It’s even rarer for a rookie drafted as late as Goga (pick 18) to step in to immediate success. He’s had a bit of success from 3 so far, but isn’t a developed or elite shooter and will have to adjust to the NBA line.