On the rare occasions when Jonathan Bender speaks, his voice is so soft that the listener must lean in to hear him. So while it may not be the best choice of phrase to call this a put-up-or-shut-up season for the 23-year-old forward, there's a pervasive sense in Indiana that Bender will either have a breakout year or be tagged a bust. "It's time for me to deliver," he says. "Actually it's past time."
Since he was plucked out of Picayune (Miss.) Memorial High with the fifth pick in the 1999 draft, Bender has displayed a rare blend of height (7 feet), athleticism (a 39-inch vertical leap) and touch. (His shooting percentage has risen every year.) Says All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal flatly, "JB is the most talented player on this team." But Bender has been injured for much of his career; he missed all but 21 games in 2003--04 after surgery on his left knee. When he has played, he has at times been tentative and unable to hold position in the low post.
Still, his flashes of brilliance were frequent enough that the Pacers felt comfortable dealing 6'9" sixth man Al Harrington to the Hawks for swingman Stephen Jackson, a move that will free up considerable minutes at power forward. Asked by reporters whether the trade will upgrade Bender's role, team president Larry Bird smirked and said, "It better!"
Hoping to seize the opportunity, Bender worked out daily over the summer with trainer Macki Shillstone in New Orleans. He reported to training camp conspicuously stronger at 235 pounds--up 15 from a year ago--and spent early sessions firmly planted in the interior. "The trade meant that a good friend won't be around," he says of Harrington. "But I'm trying to see it as a blessing in disguise. I'm finally healthy, and I just need to deliver." --L. Jon Wertheim
ENEMY LINES an opposing team's scout sizes up the Pacers
Of the top three teams in the East, they're suddenly the smallest after trading 6'9" Al Harrington to Atlanta. Now their sixth man is going to be Austin Croshere, Jonathan Bender, Stephen Jackson or even Fred Jones, none of whom can help Jermaine O'Neal inside against the Pistons or the Heat. Scot Pollard is a duplication of Jeff Foster. You have two offensive liabilities when they're both on the court.... Over the summer Ron Artest said that he was the best player on the team--and I agree. In a tight game he's more of a go-to guy in the post than O'Neal. If you're physical with O'Neal and get him off the block, he will settle for the 10- to 15-foot turnaround. It's not that he isn't tough; it's that he wants to prove that he's skilled enough to make difficult shots.... Artest is 25 years old with the fundamental game of a veteran. The problem is, he doesn't have a veteran's head, so they can't count on him under pressure. But they have to stick with him because they'd hate to trade him and see him mature for somebody else.... Jamaal Tinsley had a pretty good year, though Larry Bird's talk that he'll become an All-Star is an exaggeration. In the transition game he's excellent, but in the half-court, coach Rick Carlisle takes the ball out of his hands--Tinsley makes the pass, cuts to the corner and spots up, which limits his chances to make a mistake.... This is Reggie Miller's final year, and Carlisle has made it clear that he'll bench Miller if he isn't producing. Even if Miller starts, he won't get starter's minutes--that's why they got Jackson, though I'm not a big fan. He tends to get carried away offensively because he thinks he's better than he really is.
Rick Carlisle became the second coach to win 50 games and a division championship in each of his first three seasons. Pat Riley was the first to do it.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003--04 statistics
Record: 61--21 (1st in East)
Points scored: 91.4 (20th in NBA)
Points allowed: 85.6 (3rd)
Coach: Rick Carlisle
(second season with the Pacers)
NEW ACQUISITION *PVR Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 86)
BOB ROSATO (O'NEAL)
O'Neal has the skills of a smaller player, but the Pacers need him to more consistently act his size.