The wraps are slowly coming off Edmond Sumner, revealing what appears more and more like a bona-fide NBA player.
From injured second-round draft pick to part-time G League player to part-time NBA player to promising summer league player, Sumner now has entered the phase of proving himself in preseason games. He’ll continue that process on Friday when the Pacers play Chicago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, an opportunity that makes him one of the team’s most intriguing players.
Sumner and TJ Leaf have most often been mentioned as the most improved players in the Pacers’ training camp, the ones who have surprised the players new to the team. Malcolm Brogdon, a summer trade acquisition, brought up Sumner’s name on Wednesday when asked who or what has stood out to him most in camp.
“Ed Sumner has a lot of potential, is really good,” Brogdon said. “He’s had a terrific summer, a terrific preseason. I’m surprised about his game and his potential and level of play. I’m excited to play with him; he’s explosive.”
People around the Pacers have been talking about Sumner’s potential since June 22, 2017, when they traded for him after New Orleans selected him with the 52nd overall pick in the NBA draft. He was a spindly, rather sickly player then, with a history of physical ailments – the most recent one being a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Sumner didn’t play in a game until January the following year, and that was with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. He played in 14 games for them, with a restriction of 15 minutes. He played in just one for the Pacers, in the final game of their season. More specifically, he played two minutes, which was time enough to score on a breakaway layup.
He averaged 22.1 points in 26 games with the Mad Ants last season and played in 23 games for the Pacers. He averaged just 2.9 points in those games but benefited from an eight-game stretch in which he played at least 10 minutes in each one. He averaged 4.5 points on 34 percent shooting in those games, with the highlight of scoring 17 points in 17 ½ minutes in a blowout victory over the Lakers.
He also scored 22 points in the regular season finale in Atlanta. He hit just 5-of-14 shots but hit three free throws with three-tenths of a second remaining to win the game.
Sumner dropped more encouraging hints in summer league play in July, averaging 11.2 points on 47 percent shooting while playing 19.4 minutes per game. And then last weekend in India he ramped up the intrigue another notch by scoring a two-game total of 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
He penetrated nearly at will, scoring off spin-moves and floaters and dropping off assists. But two plays in particular in the second game stood out that summarize much of the optimism surrounding him. He showed impressive footwork and a quick release when he hit a step-back two-pointer that was barely short of a three-pointer in the second quarter. He later took a pass about 12 feet inbounds and drove the length of the court in 3.5 seconds for a scooping layup ahead of the halftime buzzer.
The speed has always been there when healthy. The three-point shooting is something he’s added since college. The combination of those two assets along with his length – he’s 6-foot-6 with long arms –will make it difficult to keep him out of the rotation, even if everyone is healthy.
Sumner’s speed is such that it threatened to become a liability. He’s had to learn to corral it in the halfcourt offense, slowing down enough to read the defense and let plays develop. That’s what he believes has led to his greatest improvement.
“My decision-making,” he said. “I was so used to doing everything fast, fast, fast.
“Now I’m processing things a lot slower.”
Myles Turner, who has seen Sumner from the tentative first step of his NBA career, agrees.
“He looks more fluid and he’s taking his time more,” Turner said. “At his speed, playing that fast, you have a tendency to play too fast. He’s more composed.”
Sumner considers himself a point guard. That’s how he played 90 percent of the time at Xavier in his estimation, and what he wants to be. But now that he’s caught up in a logjam of point guards, he’s playing more at shooting guard behind Jeremy Lamb.
“Whatever they feel I need to be, I’ll have to adapt,” he said.
“I think he can play both (guard positions),” coach Nate McMillan said. “We try to take advantage of Ed’s ability to handle the ball and put him in situations because he does a really good job of creating offense. We have even more of an advantage when he’s at the two because now you have a two trying to guard him in the pick and rolls and different actions.”
McMillan also views Sumner as one of his better defenders because of his length and quickness, a point made clear last season even while Sumner was struggling offensively.
“Some of these elite shooters, he was one of the few guys we had last year we were comfortable with putting out there (to defend them),” McMillan said.
All well and good. But what happens when Victor Oladipo returns and bumps Lamb back to the second unit? Is there still a place for Sumner? His intention this season is to prove himself as “an NBA player, not just the end-of-the-bench NBA player,” but the Pacers have a crowded field in the backcourt that only figures to become even more congested. Brogdon, Holiday, Oladipo, Lamb and T.J. McConnell all pose obstacles.
That’s the classic “good problem” for a coach, and McMillan has little choice but to procrastinate.
“It’ll play out,” he said. “All these things normally play out. Right now, Aaron is going to be that backup guy (at point guard) and Ed will come off the bench at the two.”
Holiday helped make McMillan’s point Thursday by missing practice with an illness. Some of the guards naturally are going to become ill or injured over the course of the season – “or not going to play well,” McMillan quickly added – which will alleviate the obstruction.
But that’s for later. For now, all Sumner can do is continue to impress and imbed himself in the rotation one way or another. He might be a former second-round draft pick and he might still be unproven over the long haul of an NBA season, but he’s certainly to be taken seriously.
“He brings a dynamic to this team that we can use,” Turner said. “He’s elusive and he makes plays and he’s a better shot than he gets credit for.
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Mark Montieth’s book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis,” is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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