Though they've been hauling the boat anchor in the Eastern Conference's Central Division all year, the Indiana Pacers -- including third-year superstar-in-the-making Danny Granger (pictured above) -- aren't your prototypical NBA doormat.
Another year (two, max) and Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien should have these young guns challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons for Central Division supremacy (especially if the Cavs' LeBron James jumps ship to the Knicks in 2010, as he's universally expected to).
Though the future's not now for the peach-fuzz Pacers, you can see it taking shape. The kickass youngsters upset the world-champion Celtics early in the season, and nipped the Lakers by a point a month later. They've also notched quality wins against the Rockets and Hawks.
They torched the Suns with a 38-point first period when Phoenix visited Indy back on November 5, and were giving Phoenix all it could handle until Amar'e Stoudemire went berserk, ending up with 49 points on 17-of-21 shooting and 11 boards.
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The Pacers had no answer for Stat that night, and generally don't match up well with strong interior teams -- yet. But they snagged the rights to Georgetown big man Roy Hibbert last season in a lopsided trade with Toronto (the Pacers dumped aging Jermaine O'Neal on the Raptors, getting Hibbert, T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, and Maceo Baston in return), and are bringing along the promising rook slowly.
The 7-2 center's the hoped-for centerpiece of a topflight nucleus of young players that also includes forward Granger, the former New Mexico standout (averaging 25 points and five boards), and guards Ford (13/4), Marquis Daniels (15/5), Jarrett Jack (10/3), and rookie Brandon Rush, late of the national-champ Kansas Jayhawks (7/2).
Slovenian vet Nesterovic is the team's only real roadblock in the middle at present, and Shaq and/or Amar'e will likely feast, but we're telling you: Beat up on the Pacers now, 'cause it's gonna get a lot harder. Real soon.
Tip's at 7 p.m. tonight at U.S. Airways Center. See www.nba.com/suns. TV: FSN AZ. Radio: KTAR-AM 620. -- Clay McNear