Summer League serves as a learning tool for all — Popeye Jones to coach Pacers

The Amway Center hosts the annual Orlando Summer League.

The Amway Center hosts the annual Orlando Summer League.

ORLANDO, Fla. — When the Pacers begin Summer League play Saturday afternoon (1:00 pm ET) in Orlando, one of five games, Popeye Jones will be directing the team.

Pacers head coach Nate McMillan recently informed Jones, who’s entering his fourth year with the franchise, that he would coach the team’s Summer League entry.

[Five Pacers highlight team’s 2016 Summer League roster]

For the last several years, that responsibility has been on longtime assistant coach Dan Burke.

“Coach Burke has done it for a number of years. I think he’s retired. He’s been a Summer League coach way too long so it’s some new blood,” Jones said with a grin.

“I was happy that I actually got it. I’ve always wanted to do it. I’ve done it before and it’s good experience for me in being in a head-coaching role with all there responsibilities that come with it.”

In fact, Jones has twice headed up a Summer League squad, but never before with the Pacers. His first opportunity was with Dallas, and then the (then) New Jersey Nets.

“It’s been a number of years so I’m happy to be able to implement my offensive stuff and our defensive system with the help a lot of great assistants,” he said.

This time of year isn’t only an important time for the players, in their development and showing their abilities, but that also is true for the assistant coaches and coaching hopefuls.

Assistant coach Bill Bayno draws up a play during practice.

Assistant coach Bill Bayno draws up a play during practice.

Joining Jones on the bench will be new assistant Bill Bayno, Mad Ants (D-League) coach Steve Gansey, and assistant video coordinator Jhared Simpson. Seated behind the bench will be additional staffers gaining valuable experience.

[Nate McMillan fills out coaching staff with Bill Bayno, David McClure]

Jones is accustomed to sitting on the bench with the coaches, but it’s a lot different being one seat up the bench.

“It’s different when you have to make the final decisions,” Jones, 46, explained. “You take all the opinions of everybody, all of these assistants that’s helping you and then you need to come up with the final decision of what you want to do defensively, what do you want to do offensively.”

Defensively, he intends to preach all of the same principles — headed up by Burke, the defensive guru. When team president Larry Bird announced that McMillan would be promoted to head coach, he joked — yet he was also very serious — that he hoped Burke would be his first target to land in free agency.

[Pacers Podcast: Nate McMillan]

On the other end of the floor, the Pacers want to continue to push the tempo and have much more of a free-flowing offense. Jones estimated that he has just three play calls and the rest will be read and react.

“Offensively, Nate’s biggest points to me is he doesn’t want a lot of ball holding,” said Jones. “He wants a lot of quick decisions. When the ball swings to you, be able to make a decision — whether you shoot it, pass it, or drive it. We don’t want you hold it, sizing up guys. We want ball movement and we want player movement.

“And also, teaching guys how to space properly because in order to attack, you need space on the court. We’re working a lot in getting that system in.

“If you pass and you stand, then you’re wrong.”

The Pacers’ 14-man roster features four guys on their regular-season roster last season: Glenn Robinson III, Shayne Whittington, Rakeem Christmas, and Joe Young. Robinson III and Christmas were not part of the organization this time last year so they played on other teams, Atlanta and Cleveland, respectively.

Those Pacers look to shine during these games, showing growth in their game, and why that they deserve a roster spot. GRIII and Whittington’s deals aren’t guaranteed for next season. It’s also our first chance to see second-round pick Georges Niang in competition against NBA guys.

Jones and the coaching staff will work to get them up to speed offensively, but they also want to see those guys take responsibility and act as veterans.

“They’re Pacers. Take the young guys under their wing or guys that are not under contract and be the veterans,” Jones said. “If I have a team decision, those guys who are Pacers, I am going to go to them and say, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ That’s what head coaches do during the regular season with their veteran players.”

The Pacers’ first game is set for Saturday at 1:00 p.m. ET against Orlando Blue. All games can be viewed on NBA TV and WatchESPN.

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