An Al Jefferson injury has suddenly thrust Rakeem Christmas into the Pacers' rotation. Has the second-year forward earned an opportunity to stay on the court?
Since returning from the NBA All-Star break, Indiana Pacers' backup Center Al Jefferson has been sidelined with dental pain. Although Jefferson had previously not missed a game for the Pacers this season, Indiana tended to defer to Kevin Seraphin in games where Jefferson saw reduced minutes. For the first three games since the break, however, head coach Nate McMillan has elected to use second-year forward Rakeem Christmas as the backup Center instead of Seraphin.
Christmas, originally a 2015 draft pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves, was traded to Indiana following a stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers' Summer League team, and has spent most of his first two seasons traveling back and forth from the Pacers' bench to their D-League affiliate the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. His first appearance in an NBA game occurred on the final day of the 2015-16 season in a meaningless game against Milwaukee, and this season he has mostly been relegated to garbage-time duty. However, last Friday, Christmas announced his arrival to the NBA when he stepped on the court against the Memphis Grizzlies:
In the three previous games, Christmas averaged 6 points, 5 rebounds, and a block in just under 17 minutes per game. Monday night against the Rockets, Christmas reached double-digit scoring for the first time in his career, only missing one shot and nailing both of his free throw attempts. He has played well enough in relief to force a decision from McMillan regarding his minutes once Jefferson returns to the lineup. While it is unlikely that Christmas will supplant Jefferson in the rotation, he surely has earned the minutes normally given to Seraphin, and more playing time will allow him to correct smaller issues that have surfaced in his recent stretch.
One area in which Christmas needs to improve is his defense of driving scorers, particularly when the offensive player attempts a shot around him. Christmas is fairly solid in the Hibbert-approved verticality department:
But, so far he has struggled defending the paint in any other capacity. Here, Christmas does a nice job cutting off the direct driving lane for Vince Carter, but Carter uses a crafty move to step inside of Christmas, and Rakeem slides into a shooting foul:
These tendencies continued into Saturday night, where a tough transition cover gave Hassan Whiteside an and-1 opportunity at Christmas' expense:
Against Houston, Christmas found himself surrendering to drivers and fouling at the onset of their attack. James Harden was essentially gifted 6 free points from the free throw line because Christmas would just foul before any shot attempt if Harden was motioning towards the basket. Then again, it's unreasonable to think that Christmas, playing in what was essentially his third NBA game, would be already capable of successfully defending one of the most proficient scorers of the last decade. With more playing time, Christmas can get more comfortable in the defensive rotations and learn not to be drawn in to an attacker.
One area that would strongly support more minutes for Christmas is his rebounding. Indiana is a notably dreadful rebounding team, pulling down just 41.7 boards per game, good for 26th in the league. Their rebounding rate is just as bad, as the Pacers pull down only 48.2% of available rebounds per game. In limited action, Christmas is currently posting a rebound rate of 15.7%, second on the Pacers to only Al Jefferson's 16.1%. His offensive rebounding rate, however, is an impressive 15.8%, far and away the best on Indiana, as the next closest Pacer is Lavoy Allen at just 10.4%. Extending possessions through offensive rebounds is valuable for any team, and Indiana reaped the benefits Monday night against Houston, particularly in the second quarter. Indiana outscored Houston 12-2 in second chance points in the second quarter, which spurred their terrific comeback over the Rockets. If Christmas continues to provide a presence that positively affects Indiana's offensive rebounding, then he definitely deserves more time on the court.
It was only a matter of time before Rakeem Christmas got his shot; the Pacers traded a second-round pick for him, so to leave him on the bench with no playing time at all would have been a sizable waste. While not polished yet, the athletic ability and skill is apparent in Christmas, and it would not be surprising to see Indiana retain him and use him in a Jeff Foster-type role going forward.