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Houston's Jamal Shead highlights first draft workout group as Pacers prioritize experience

INDIANAPOLIS -- They didn't realize it going in, but once it was mentioned to them, it explained a lot.

The Pacers' first six-man pre-draft workout of the 2024 draft cycle on Friday only included players who had played at least four years of college basketball, starting for at least three of those seasons. Three of them played five seasons, taking advantage of the 2020-21 season that didn't count against anyone's eligibility because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. A fourth spent six years in college, playing four seasons and taking two medical redshirts.

"I thought it was amazing because everybody knew how to play," said Kyle Rode, a sharp-shooting forward who played five years at Liberty and was named second-team all-conference in each of his last three seasons. "You met the guys 20 minutes ago and it felt like you guys could play together on the court in a live setting and it was kind of cohesive. I credit that to college experience and everybody playing at really well-respected programs. I feel like that helped a lot."

It might be indicative of the approach the Pacers intend to take in this draft because of the picks they have.

They held two first-round picks in this draft heading into the season but traded both (and their 2026 first) to acquire All-Star power forward Pascal Siakam in January. The deal paid off as Siakam averaged 21.7 points per game in the last 41 games of the regular season for the Pacers and then 21.6 points per game in the playoffs during their run to the Eastern Conference finals.

The deal leaves them with three second-round picks at Nos. 36, 49 and 50 overall. It will be hard for any of the players they pick to make the rotation and it's hard to even imagine that all three will even make the team without taking up two-way roster spots. However, rookie Ben Sheppard's experience is a sign of how a player the Pacers select in those spots might be able to make an impact.

Sheppard, the No. 26 overall pick and a four-year player at Belmont, appeared in 57 of 82 games this season and spent time with the Mad Ants in the G League, but he became a constant in the rotation when wing Bennedict Mathurin went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in March. Sheppard ended up averaging more minutes per game in the playoffs than he did in the regular season and he shot 38.0% from 3-point range. Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said frequently that Sheppard's four years of college experienced made it easy for him to step into a system, understand his role and execute his assignments without needing too much instruction.

So Friday's workout seemed to be a sign that the Pacers are looking for someone who can take a similar path. If Indiana keeps its roster intact, which would mean re-signing Siakam and Obi Toppin, there won't be a clear path to playing time for a rookie at any position. However, injuries happen and that means the Pacers will need someone they can plug in and play.

"I didn't know all the guys here were four-year guys," said Dillon Jones, a four-year player and three-time All-Big Sky pick at Weber State who was named the conference's player of the year. "But you could definitely feel it out there now that you think about it. The awareness, the IQ of the game, how people were playing and what we were getting to."

As it happened, several of the players at Friday's workout also had somebody with the Pacers who could vouch for them. Houston point guard Jamal Shead played with Pacers forward Jarace Walker (and last year's lottery pick) with the Cougars. Pitt forward Blake Hinson got to know Tyrese Haliburton a little while Hinson was at Iowa State for two seasons after Haliburton was drafted. Rode was a teammate of Mad Ants guard Darius McGee, who had an exhibit 10 contract with the Pacers and was part of last year's summer league team.

Tennessee guard Josiah Jordan-James played with Pacers forward Aaron Nesmith in high school at Porter-Gaud in Charleston, S.C. He said Nesmith actually rescheduled his flight home to Charleston for the summer so he could watch his workout. Haliburton, Walker, McGhee and Nesmith were all present at the workout Friday.

"It was awesome," Jordan-James said. "It definitely put a chip on my shoulder wanting to show how much I've improved and make him happy because we've been working out, we've grown up together. I wanted to put a smile on his face and let him be happy and proud of me for once. I've been watching him in the league for so long. It was awesome him taking the time out of his day. ... That means a lot. That's family right there."

Shead was the most decorated member of the group and he had a reason to have a chip on his shoulder. Shead was a consensus first-team All-American this year and the Big 12 Player of the Year. He was also Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year after earning American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors last year before the Cougars switched conferences. Shead was part of a Final Four team his freshman year and reached at least the Sweet 16 in each of the past three seasons, but he sprained his ankle in this year's regional semifinal and Houston lost to Duke without him in the game.

As decorated as he is, Shead is generally considered a likely second-round pick because he's undersized at 6-1, 190 pounds. However he's obviously proven throughout his college career with stifling defense and the ability to score and distribute that he can still make an impact as an undersized guard.

"It's not about proving anything, it's about finding the right fit," Shead said. "Being around guys who want me to be there. I don't think I have anything to prove. I just think I have to work for everything wherever I go."

Outside of Shead, the first workout was mostly populated by bigger guards and wings. Jordan-James, listed at 6-6, 207-pounds, played point guard in high school but was the Vols' defensive ace over the last several seasons, leading them to four NCAA Tournaments and an Elite Eight this season. Hinson, a 6-7, 235-pound wing, averaged 18.5 points per game for Pitt this season, helping the Panthers reach the tournament.

Jones, a 6-6, 235-pounder, earned Big Sky Player of the Year honors with 20.8 points., 9.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists, showing he could handle the ball and bring it up the floor despite forward size. Zyon Pullin, a 6-4, guard, transferred to Florida for his fifth season after four years at UC-Riverside and 15.5 points, 4.9 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game. And Rode averaged a career high 14.2 points per game to earn All-Conference USA honors, hitting 100 3-pointers at a 38.8% clip.

"This workout was mostly like-sized guys, older guys," Jordan-James said. "They definitely expected a lot out of us, not necessarily playing wise, but just vocally. To be able to have a presence on the floor on both ends of the floor, just to be vocal and show our experience and I thought we all did a great job of that today."

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: First draft workout group shows Pacers prioritizing experience