The Pacers young guards are growing together into something special

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In less than 12 months, the Pacers have added three rising backcourt stars, all under the age of 23. They’re already well on their way to being special together.

On the night before hitting the game-winning shot to defeat the Miami Heat, Tyrese Haliburton dined with teammates at South Beach’s popular Prime 112. Buddy Hield ordered for the table — Tomahawk steaks, truffle macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and Caesar salad. But as the young Indiana Pacers enjoyed their white-tablecloth meal in the warm, December weather, Haliburton was also ruminating on something more serious.

Less than two weeks prior, Haliburton had his worst game of the season to this same Heat opponent: He missed all nine of his shots and scored just one point in a home loss at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Fast forward 24 hours after dinner and Haliburton drilled a 3-pointer to earn the win, punctuating a 43-point performance in which he beat Reggie Miller’s Pacers record with 10 made 3s and — most importantly — enacted his revenge.

“That was in my mind coming into today,” Haliburton said moments after making the logo jumper. “If I want to be the player that I think I am and that others think I am, I got to respond to that.”

This is what the Pacers envisioned when they traded All-Star Domantas Sabonis to the Sacramento Kings for Haliburton midway through last season. The Pacers saw in Haliburton what the Kings and many others did not: A potential franchise player.

More than that, he’s now the leader, connector and centerpiece of Indiana’s promising, young backcourt — alongside rookies Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard — that has the Pacers dreaming big.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – NOVEMBER 19: Andrew Nembhard #2 and Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Indiana Pacers celebrate in the second quarter against the Orlando Magic at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on November 19, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard are a foundation for the Pacers future

The trade for Haliburton was part of a greater plan for Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and head coach Rick Carlisle.

While many league insiders panned the Kings for the deal at the time, it was also a risk by the Pacers to trade Sabonis — a two-time All-Star who established himself as the team’s best player — for a 21-year-old point guard with a funky shooting motion. If Haliburton was anything less than a multi-time All-Star, the deal would be a bust.

In Sacramento, Haliburton played mostly off the ball alongside point guard De’Aaron Fox. His rookie stats were solid — 13 points, 5.3 assists per game — but it was clear he was going to have to make it work in an offense that flowed through Fox. Knowing Haliburton could lead an NBA offense meant extrapolating from his college days in which he averaged 6.5 assists as a sophomore at Iowa State. Make no mistake, he showed flashes. Close observers knew he was special. But few expected his impact to be so immediate. Haliburton arrived in Indianapolis and averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 assists in 26 games after the trade deadline.

The Pacers knew they hit and last summer started to build around him. They drafted Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin, a physical, score-first guard, at No. 6, then snagged Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard with the first pick in the second round.

Drafting two more guards when the Pacers already had Haliburton and Buddy Hield (who also came over in the exchange with the Kings) could have been considered counterintuitive. After all, Sacramento just did this and determined they needed to break up its young backcourt. But the Pacers (A) fell in love with Mathurin during the pre-draft process, (B) had Nembhard ranked in the top 20 of their draft board and (C) believed Haliburton could make it work. The way Carlisle figured, the Pacers were going to play fast and give Haliburton weapons to work with.

“Playing with Tyrese Haliburton is gonna be a real enhancer to their careers,” Carlisle said of Mathurin and Nembhard after the draft in June.

“Making that move to get Tyrese was really important for this organization, for this franchise and for a championship vision,” he continued. “You gotta think big. You gotta dream big.”

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – NOVEMBER 07: Tyrese Haliburton #0 and Bennedict Mathurin #00 of the Indiana Pacers celebrate in the third quarter of the game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on November 07, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

The Indiana Pacers young guards are leading the charge

The early returns have been nothing short of proof of concept. The Pacers, projected in Las Vegas to win 22.5 games this season, are 21-18 after having a four-game win streak snapped by the 76ers Wednesday. They rank eighth in pace, up from 20th before acquiring Haliburton last season. Haliburton is averaging 20.6 points and 10.2 assists while shooting 40.7 percent on 3s.

If he keeps this up, he’ll be the only player in NBA history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists while shooting 40 percent from 3 in a single season, according to StatMuse.

As a trio, Haliburton, Mathurin and Nembhard are outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions in 206 minutes together. They often close games, learning to play with each other in high-leverage situations.

Mathurin has been a seamless fit next to Haliburton. He’s averaging 17.4 points, the second-most of any rookie, behind only top pick Paolo Banchero. His 658 points lead all bench scorers by a mile and he’s the early favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year.

“With Benn, I think we complement each other well because he’s a natural-born scorer,” Haliburton told me in the morning after shootaround in Miami. “He can get points up in a hurry, so you have people around him who really want to get him the ball and get him downhill so that he can score.

“You put me with him and I think it’s a natural fit.”

Haliburton and Mathurin connect often for attacks in transition, alley-oops and backdoor lobs.

It’s still a work in progress. The occasional lob attempt that sails out of bounds or a missed chance to find Mathurin cutting to the basket is an opportunity to debrief.

“There are times when I might miss him trying to get him the ball or he might want the ball,” Haliburton said. “I might have been right or wrong. But just come and talk to me. As basketball players, it’s all respect, it’s all love. We all want to win.”

Nembhard was a four-year player who provides a steady hand and efficient shooting. His breakthrough is more recent, garnering national attention during a West-coast swing in which he made a buzzer-beating 3 to beat the Lakers and scored 31 to beat the defending champs.

“I had a few good games in a row,” Nembhard told me. “I think I’m just getting more comfortable out there.”

Like Haliburton, Nembhard is also 6-foot-5 and can use his length to see and dish over defenses.

“We’re just two high-IQ guys, so we understand where we need to be and when we need to be there,” said Haliburton, before pointing out more similarities.

“First year in college and first year-and-a-half in the NBA, I was an off-ball guy learning to do that the right way,” Haliburton said. “But obviously now you see I’m more comfortable being on the ball.

“For Andrew, I think this is a transition period for him to be off the ball, but he’s done a very good job. We just complement each other well because, if there’s times where I’m struggling, he can bring it up and I’ve played off the ball before so I understand it. I think that’s where it helps.”

Having Nembhard occasionally initiate offense unlocks Haliburton off the ball and gives him space to wind up and make catch-and-shoot 3s.

“I think we all bring slightly different things to the table, whether it’s playmaking or shooting or physicality, driving, rim pressure,” Nembhard said of the guard group. “So I think we just work off each other really well and play to our strengths.”

What’s next for these Indiana Pacers?

As Haliburton, Mathurin and Nembhard develop, the Pacers have the means to build around them. The Pacers have all of their own first-round picks, plus two more this summer from Boston and Cleveland that are likely to convey.

While Turner and Hield have been ideal on-court fits and are a big reason why Indiana is winning games, the Pacers could trade one or both and pick up more assets if the deal makes sense.

A popular trade bandied about coming into the season was sending Turner and Hield to the Lakers for Russell Westbrook’s expiring contract and two unprotected first-round picks. However, that idea seems to have lost steam in the wake of Hield and Turner’s play. Other teams that could seek a big-man upgrade such as Toronto, Brooklyn and the Clippers could make an offer for Turner. Hield, shooting 42.9 percent on 3s this season, could help space the floor for any contender.

On the flip side, there’s no rush. Turner is extension eligible but the Pacers could also try to re-sign him this offseason. Hield has another year left on his contract. Rather than take a step back, the Pacers can easily create max cap space for this summer, when Khris Middleton, Draymond Green, Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle Kuzma and others could be available. If not this offseason, carrying over that cap space is simple with the core still on rookie-scale contracts.

Indiana has not historically been a free-agent destination but Haliburton has the potential to change that. Whatever they decide, the Pacers have plenty of options and a bright future, and Haliburton is the straw that stirs the drink.

Haliburton admits that it’s easy to daydream about what he can accomplish with Mathurin and Nembhard in the future.

“It’s hard not to, right? We’re all excited about it.”

But a few hours before tipping off in Miami, Haliburton quickly turned the conversation back to the present.

“I think the gains that we’ll see in the next two-to-three years are coming from today,” Haliburton said. “It’s easy for young teams in the league to not win and be like, ‘We’re trying to build’ or whatever. But, man, we have a chance. We have a chance to win some games. We’ve been surprising some people throughout this year, so we’re just focused on every day, how we get better.

“It’s kind of like Memphis, right? You got a young group of guys together who learn from each other and work every day, and now they’re one of the best teams in the league. That’s what we’re trying to get to.”

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