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Daniel G. Habib
October 29, 2001
Summer school is over; it's time for Jonathan Bender and Al Harrington to show the world what they learned
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October 29, 2001

10 Indiana Pacers

Summer school is over; it's time for Jonathan Bender and Al Harrington to show the world what they learned

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projected lineup

2000-01 record: 41-41 (fourth in Central)

Coach: Isiah Thomas (second season with Pacers)



2000-01 KEY STATS


Al Harrington


7.5 ppg

4.9 rpg

1.7 apg

0.81 spg

44.4 FG%


Jermaine O'Neal


12.9 ppg

9.8 rpg

2.81 bpg

0.60 spg

46.5 FG%


Jeff Foster


3.5 ppg

5.5 rpg

0.39 bpg

46.9 FG%

51.6 FT%


Reggie Miller


18.9 ppg

3.5 rpg

1.00 spg

44.0 FG%

36.6 3FG%


Jalen Rose


20.5 ppg

6.0 apg

5.0 rpg

0.90 spg

45.7 FG%



2000-01 KEY STATS


Travis Best


11.9 ppg

6.1 apg

2.9 rpg

1.43 spg

44.0 FG%


Austin Croshere



4.8 rpg

I.I apg

0.62 bpg

39.4 FG%


Jonathan Bender


3.3 ppg

1.3 rpg

0.5 apg

0.47 bpg

35.5 FG%


Carlos Rogers#


4.6 ppg

3.6 rpg

0.46 bpg

68.2 FG%

55.8 FT%


Jamaal Tinsley (R)#


14.3 ppg

6.0 apg

3.8 rpg

2.55 spg

39.9 FG%

#New acquisition

(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)

*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 117)

Jermaine O'Neal knows what you did last summer. That is, if you're Jonathan Bender or Al Harrington. O'Neal, a 23-year-old power forward fresh off a breakout year in his fifth NBA season, kept close tabs on the off-season progress of his two straight-outta-high school counterparts. He spent his summer in Atlanta living in the same apartment complex as Bender, with whom he trained and played, and he periodically phoned to interrogate Harrington, who was working out with personal strength coach Joe Abunassar in Bradenton, Fla.

What did O'Neal, the big brother of the Pacers' barely legal brigade, have to say? "It wasn't encouragement," laughs Harrington. "It was more like, 'I'm doing more than you.' Jermaine would call and tell me he'd been running on the football field, lifting weights, and I'd tell him I'd been lifting weights and doing agility drills and running laps in the pool. But man, we all worked hard. We all busted our a-s-s. And that's going to make us better once we get out on the floor."

O'Neal is a model for Bender and Harrington not only because he inspired them to take up badly needed workout regimens (the spindly 7-foot Bender gained 23 pounds and now weighs 219; the 6'9" Harrington toned much of his baby fat into muscle), but also because he typifies how a young player can, given substantial PT, transform potential into production. Last season, averaging 32.6 minutes a game (his high during four seasons with Portland was 13.5), O'Neal tripled his career highs in points, rebounds and blocks, tying for the league lead in the latter with 228. The second year of coach Isiah Thomas's rebuilding program will depend heavily on whether Bender and Harrington can duplicate O'Neal's forward leap. "I said that there couldn't be any excuses this year, and I meant it to everyone," says Reggie Miller, the team's veteran in his 15th season. "But we're going to depend a lot more than we ever have on the younger guys, so if they take that personally, good. We need them more than we need anyone else on this team. Jermaine has already had his breakout year. This is the time for Al and J.B. to showcase their skills."

The Pacers have invested much in the youthful duo: Harrington, 21, was Indiana's first-round pick in '98, and Bender, 20, came at the price of All-Star center Antonio Davis in '99. Only Harrington, whose season averages in minutes, points, rebounds and assists have increased in each of his three seasons, has come close to justifying the expense. Bender has yet to average more than 9.7 minutes or 3.3 points per game. Drafted as Miller's successor at the two spot, Bender now more than ever must spell the 36-year-old, whose 3,181 minutes last season were his most since '89-90. Bender's size and strong off-the-dribble moves make him an intriguing possibility at off-guard, but his defense is immature, and he's still struggling with the transition from high school stud to NBA bit player. "That was tough last year," he says. "My first year I didn't play, but I expected that. Last year I thought I was going to play a little more. I took the drive to earn those minutes with me this summer. I'm not going to take that backseat anymore. Now is my season to come out."

The Pacers need that to improve on last season's .500 record and first-round playoff exit, because the roster is status quo. Miller is a fixture, and Jalen Rose will start, at point guard or at small forward, with Travis Best (3.7 assists to turnovers) at the point. Austin Croshere regressed after signing a seven-year, $51 million contract prior to last season, but in Thomas's system of interchangeable parts, he's in the mix at the three or the four. Ho-hum Jeff Foster is the best Indiana can do at center, though O'Neal will play there against smaller five men, as he did last season.

So the burden falls on the youth, but don't put it that way to O'Neal. "We prefer not to even be called the youth movement anymore," he says. "This is Al's fourth year; this is J.B.'s third year. How long does it take to actually be called a professional basketball player?" Good question. We'll see if he gets a good answer.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]