In the four years since he was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009, Jeff Pendergraph has played a total 880 minutes in the NBA. (For comparison's sake, in the 2012-13 season Nando De Colo played 921 minutes.) Pendergraph missed a full year with a knee injury and struggled to get off the bench for the Pacers. Yet Jim Boylen, the Spurs' new assistant coach who spent the last two years as an assistant for the Pacers, recommended him highly. So he must feel the 26 year old big has some untapped talent.
I've seen very little of Pendergraph before he joined the Spurs, but J.R. Wilco reached out to Tom Lewis who manages Indy Cornrows, Pounding the Rock's fellow SBNation blog on that focuses on the Indiana Pacers, and he had the following to say about our newest Spur:
I'm still surprised the Pacers didn't make a stronger effort to bring back Pendy, knowing they were going to let Tyler Hansbrough walk. Pendy brings the active, high-energy type of play like Hansbrough but we never saw a big enough sample size of playing time to draw any valid conclusions about his value as a consistent part of a playing rotation. Some nights, he'd hit the mid-range jumper and be really active on the glass and defense and there would be screams for him to replace Hans in the playing rotations. In other appearances he'd be active but closer to out of control. He isn't shy about shooting the ball whether the shots are falling or not. But considering the Pacers have about $2 million in cap room and still need a backup big man, they are looking for a guy that fits Pendy's description. Welcome to the Miles Plumlee era!
Overall Pendergraph is a net positive for any team because if he isn't playing he's a great asset to help prepare others to play. He's a great teammate and locker room presence that fit right in with the Pacers from day one. In fact, before the end of his first training camp, Pendy was breaking down team huddles and always went through a manic routine in the team huddle after player introductions to get the team fired up for the opening tip.
Pendy joined the Pacers while recovering from a knee injury and was rarely available in his first season. Last year he earned some time in the middle of the season when Hansbrough was slumping but I'd love to see him get a shot at some regular minutes to see what kind of micro-burst impact he can give a team off the bench after settling into a consistent role. He is hungry to play and works hard at developing his game with the belief he will eventually get his chance and be ready for it.
One thing is for sure, when the Spurs are in town he is a guy I will seek out to chat with and we probably won't talk about basketball.
So I spent some time this week to watch film on Pendy extensively, and I think he could turn out to be a quality signing for the price. Let's explore what he did when he got to play last season with the Pacers, and how he might fit with the Spurs.
Pendergraph got most of his offense in two ways: shooting pick and pop jumpers and running the court to establish position early and post up.
In the half court Pendergraph usually slipped the screen and did a good job of moving to the open space to stay available for the pass on pick and pops. When he received the pass, he would pull the trigger without hesitation. Unfortunately, he wasn't as good as you'd want a designated mid-range shooter to be. His shooting motion seems consistent and most of his shots look good when they leave his hands but he didn't convert at a high enough rate to make the defense account for him.
One of the things I immediately noticed was that Pendergraph was taking longer jumpers than needed at times. He would go a step too far out, possibly to make the pass easier for the point guard, but it took away from his efficiency. On shots from 15 to 19 feet, Pendergraph shots a very good 43.5%; on shots from 20 to 24 feet, he shot an ugly 31.6%. Pendergraph has a good enough shot to become a consistent pick and pop threat, but he needs to get a little closer to shoot it. With the Spurs spacing the floor much better than the Pacers' and with good passers setting him up, I think Pendy could take a step forward in that part of his game.
The other major way Pendergraph got looks was by beating his man down the floor and establishing position early. He is not the most graceful guy out there, but he runs with purpose and is aggressive calling for the ball. Once he gets it, he shows solid but unspectacular touch around the rim and a simple but effective post game. He used the deep position he got to convert with hooks or draw fouls on numerous occasions.
What he needs to work on is varying his finishes and showing more patience near the rim. He gets blocked a fair amount at the basket and it's mostly because he tries to go for a predictable quick, strong finish even when pump faking or using the rim to protect his shot would have been a better option. At 6-9 and with mediocre explosiveness, Pendergraph could stand to learn how to finish with grace as well as power.
His hustle allows him to grab his fair share of offensive boards but that won't likely be an area the Spurs will ask him to focus on. As for his passing, he can make simple high-low passes and find the open man but he is not on the level of Diaw, Duncan or Splitter.
How can the Spurs use him?
One of the most exciting things about Pendergraph is that the Spurs' second unit could finally have a traditional pick and pop big to play the role Duncan has with the starters. If Pendy can set up at 15 feet and connect consistently on those open looks, it opens up a lot of space for the playmakers.
Pendergraph's ability to run the floor is also intriguing, but I doubt he gets as many post up touches out of it as he did with the Pacers. I'm more intrigued by his potential to set drag screens in the secondary break for Ginobili and Parker, like Splitter does. Marco Belinelli could also use those early screens to get open for a quick three.
What concerns me a bit is the very limited amount of pick and roll plays Pendergraph was part of in Indiana, but I'm chalking that off to the Pacers needing him to space the floor and to their lack of great playmakers.
Overall, Pendergraph's success will be greatly determined by whether his jumper is falling or not, and I think there is a good chance that it does.
Pendergraph's effort level is high in his own end but he is not without flaws. He isn't a terrible post defender but he fouls far too often. Instead of trying to anticipate what his man will do and use footwork to stop him, he is reactive. He seems strong enough to hold his position but usually focuses on the upper body instead of using his legs to get the opponent out of position. He also struggles when his guy faces up, playing off of him a little too much trying to prevent a closer shot, but he lacks the length to bother the mid-range jumpers he's allowing. It's nothing he can't correct and he will likely only struggle with exceptional post scorers (plus the Spurs have other guys that excel at guarding the post) so I'm not too worried.
Where he shows some promise is defending in space. He shows solid lateral quickness, which could help him cover ground on help defense. In pick and rolls he is a bit inconsistent in terms of his approach and needs to get better at anticipating plays instead of reacting (trend-alert) but he shows good awareness recognizing what's the biggest threat, the ball handler or the roll man. He could benefit from just hanging back, like Tim Duncan does, instead of hedging, but it seems like he could do either if needed.
His defensive rebounding percentage of 20% is solid if not eye popping, but the team did very well with him on the court. He also shows the ability to get rebounds in traffic, and he usually attacks the boards without being greedy about it and taking them from teammates. He also shows good focus by grabbing the board and immediately looking to make the outlet pass, which could be helpful since San Antonio constantly looks to push the pace.
How can the Spurs use him?
Pendergraph seems to be versatile enough to play with virtually any of the Spurs' bigs on defense. He can step outside if he is sharing the court with Duncan or Splitter or he can hang closer to the rim, where he is admittedly not a great rim protector, to try to change shots and rebound if he plays with Bonner or Diaw. He might be over-matched against post players that are either considerably bigger or versatile enough to face up but against secondary post threats, he should be fine and his rebounding will probably be good enough to keep him on the floor. I don't expect Pendergraph to be an impact player on defense but he does enough things well to at the very least not hurt the team on that end.
At least from the small sample size we have to judge him with, Pendergraph seems like a legitimate NBA big and for $2 mill a year, that's fantastic.
While Pendergraph doesn't really do any one thing exceedingly well, he seems like a pretty well-rounded player and considering the Spurs have a couple of specialty bigs, someone like Jeff will allow Pop to mix and match. Of course, for Pendergraph to succeed, he needs to consistently hit those open jumpers and show hustle and BBIQ. The competition for a spot in the rotation will be fierce and I wouldn't be surprised if Pendergraph starts the season as the last big in the depth chart. I would be surprised, however, if he doesn't crack the rotation at some point. Pendy is not a great player and will likely max out at "good third big" but his skill set fits the Spurs' needs too well to stay in the deep bench for long.