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Caitlin Cooper answers our burning questions about Chris Duarte

We asked NBA + Indiana Pacers reporter Caitlin Cooper to help us get to know Chris Duarte.
By | 19 Comments | Jul 21, 2023

Dec 29, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Chris Duarte (3) and forward Domantas Sabonis (11) in the second half against the Charlotte Hornets at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Sacramento Kings had a busy offseason despite the fact that last years Beam Team roster remains largely intact. Monte McNair retained the services of Harrison Barnes and Trey Lyles, extended the services of Domantas Sabonis, traded away some draft picks, opened up some cap space, convinced Sasha Vezenkov to move to Sacramento, signed Nerlens Noel, and acquired Chris Duarte from the Indiana Pacers. That last one is why we’re gathered here today.

I’ve watched Duarte play a handful of games for the Pacers over the years, but there’s nothing like the pointed insight you can gather from someone who is in the trenches with an NBA team night in, night out. With that being said, I can’t think of a better person to talk about Chris Duarte with than Caitlin Cooper, NBA reporter and creator of Basketball, She Wrote – A blog about the Indiana Pacers.

We also have a soft spot for SB Nation alums that have gone the independent route. Cooper spent several years at SB Nation’s Pacers blog, Indy Cornrows, before venturing off to start her own thing. That journey hits close to home. You can support her independent Indiana Pacers coverage on Patreon.

OK. Let’s talk Chris Duarte.

Tony: Chris Duarte battled an ankle injury throughout the 2022-23 season, and both his minutes and production dipped from what was a successful rookie year in 2021-22. Was Duarte’s ‘sophomore slump’ as simple as bad injury luck, more competition at his position, or should Kings fans be concerned that he isn’t the player his rookie year numbers would suggest?

Caitlin: Whether Duarte is Season 1 Duarte or Season 2 Duarte is a question for Season 3 Duarte. There was a lot working against him last season. After missing the final 12 games of his rookie year with a toe injury, he looked composed at Summer League and showcased improved pacing out of the pick-and-roll while playing with the Dominican Republic’s National Team during FIBA World Cup Qualifying. It was all very encouraging! Then… the regular season started. In many ways, this sequence epitomizes his “sophomore slump.” While Kevin Durant was at the line for Brooklyn, Duarte could be seen form shooting in the background. To date, he had shot 7-of-26 from deep and there were visible signs, such as this, that the slump was bothering him. However, on the ensuing possession, it was like the floodgates opened. He buried a three from beyond 30 feet, and two nights later, he scored a career-high 30 points.

Again, it was encouraging! He seemed to be turning a corner! That is, until he turned his ankle within the first five minutes of the next game. From then on, whether dealing with lingering pain or sustaining other injuries, he never managed to consistently find his footing, both figuratively and (perhaps) literally. Generally speaking, there were just a lot of instances where his advantage perception seemed a bit off. For example, this was definitely a low point. In addition to being sped up and not waiting for the ball screen, look at how he uses – or rather, doesn’t use – the subsequent seal. Instead of pulling-up outside the restricted area or knifing the rest of the way to the rim, he intentionally decelerates on one leg and then completely loses track of the plot after planting his left foot.

Granted, that’s the ankle he injured earlier in the season, which might explain some of the lack of lift, but it doesn’t excuse the pacing or poor decision-making. All too often, in contrast to what it seemed like he had figured out the prior summer, there was an unsureness and hesitancy to his game, almost like an unintentionally off-beat rhythm. Tellingly, he played 19 games last season without making a three. Of those games, there were only five in which the Pacers won his minutes. He struggled to find other ways to impact the game when his shot wasn’t falling, which was a problem given that his true shooting percentage ranked 264 among the 270 players who attempted at least 300 shots last season. He’s 25. Andrew Nembhard already started in front of him last season, and Bennedict Mathurin is expected to be a starter next season. Meanwhile, the Pacers also drafted Ben Sheppard. Overall, in order for Duarte to fully blossom or at least rediscover aspects of who he was as a rookie, there was reason to think that he would need to do so for another team.

Tony: What can you tell us about Duarte’s offensive skill set beyond the 3-point shot? Is there a good player comp that Kings fans might be more familiar with?

Caitlin: As a rookie, Kevin Durant compared him to “an old-school shooting guard,” in that he’s quick off the catch and can shoot the mid-range. When he was healthy, he was one of few players on the roster for the Pacers who could be seen using a reverse pivot out of a probe dribble while still maintaining balance on his jump-shot.

It’s that type of poise that earned respect from players like LeBron, who praised Duarte for being “beyond his years,” following an overtime loss to the Lakers near the beginning of his rookie season. Additionally, when he was still playing with Domantas Sabonis, he showed some promise locating passing windows after curling around off-ball actions.

On the whole, he hasn’t exactly mastered the nuance of when to dribble, when to pass, and when to shoot, but he can dribble, he can pass, and he can shoot (I think?).

Tony: There has been a lot of conversation in Sacramento about Duarte’s relationship with former-Pacer Domantas Sabonis. Is there anything we should know about their chemistry, on and/or off the court?

Caitlin: So, I tweeted this on the day that the trade was announced, but I think that Duarte’s game really missed what Sabonis brings as a passer and screener. That wasn’t the only reason he struggled last season, but there’s a case to be made that it was a factor among many. As a rookie, Duarte was assisted by Sabonis on 43 of his 268 made field goals, which led all of his teammates. Of those assists, 20 came at the rim. As Kings fan well-know, Tyrese Haliburton is a remarkably talented passer. He’s all-seeing and his eyes tell lots of lies; however, for a player like Duarte, who isn’t the most explosive on cuts, the benefit to playing with a playmaking big is that the opposing big either isn’t around the rim, while pressuring the wheeling and dealing of side-to-side action. Or, as what happened to the Kings in the playoffs, is sagging back, which can allow shooters to play downhill or walk into shots, so long as they make them. This action, perhaps more than any other, showcases the wavelength that existed between them. For two seasons now, Duarte has shot considerably better from the left corner (41.3 percent) than the right (28.3 percent). In part, that’s because he almost always evades closeouts and/or creates space moving to his left. As such, when he’s on the right side of the floor, that means he ends up moving uphill for what is a longer and more difficult shot. Here, Sabonis reads the help defense and threads a cross-court bounce pass to Duarte in his preferred left corner.

At times, Duarte would also be used to set the back-screen for the cutter in that action. If the defense switched, there were a few instances where he, unlike anyone else on the roster, would instinctively set a ball-screen for Sabonis, allowing the big man to get downhill with his strong hand. Of course, most of the screen help came in the reverse, with Sabonis giving him an advantage rather than the other way around. In that regard, here’s a snapshot of the difference in technique, as well as philosophy.

Whereas the Pacers often prefer for screeners to touch and go, rolling or slipping to hit the gap at speed, Sabonis is wired to transform into a brick wall. By comparison to Bennedict Mathurin, who can become like a steel marble in a wooden maze game when attacking from the second side into a tilted defense, Duarte requires more of a helping hand, as he has a tendency to take off way too early whenever he senses he’s being tailed.

As far as off-the-court, they both speak Spanish and from what I’ve been told, they were close. In reference to my prior answer, if Duarte is going to blossom or at least rediscover some aspects of who he was as a rookie, there was reason to think he would need to do so on a team other than the Pacers. Given his already existing bond with Sabonis, he will arguably have a better chance with the Kings as that other team.

Tony: The Kings desperately need an influx of smart and capable defenders to Mike Brown’s rotation. Can Duarte be a difference maker on defense? Where does he help, and where does he struggle?

Caitlin: This is a low bar, but Duarte was one of the team’s better on-ball defenders as a rookie. He would at times be assigned to the likes of Chris Paul and others to pressure the ball full-court for the purpose of choking out the clock. Last season, however, is more difficult to parse. He was banged up and the team was routinely playing lineups with four guards, which required a lot of patchwork to make up for their lack of lateral size and how often they got beat on the perimeter. If there was a stat for “possessions hunted,” Duarte probably wouldn’t be among the leaders for the Pacers (hi, Haliburton, Hield, and Nwora!), but there were instances where he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain, peel switching to the perimeter, after getting beat. Also, there was a reason why Aaron Nesmith replaced him in the starting lineup after only three games at the start of the season, as well as why Nembhard followed shortly thereafter, and it wasn’t only connected to what was happening from behind the 3-point line.

Strangely enough, Duarte’s best game of the season on that end of the floor was probably on January 11 against the Knicks, when the Pacers started blitzing Jalen Brunson after halftime while also doubling Julius Randle on the catch. That was the night when Haliburton got hurt, and there were a lot of weird lineups going on, but Duarte was active and made rotations out of the traps as the Pacers attempted to change the game, chiseling away at a sizable deficit. Duarte has a strong sense for reading passing lanes and knowing when to be aggressive off-ball, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that he popped more than usual in a context that asked him to do exactly that. Otherwise, the whole of what the Pacers were on that end of the floor wasn’t greater than the sum of their parts.

Tony: You’ve watched Duarte play a ton of basketball over the last two years, so I’m curious how you’re viewing his Indiana exit. When Tyrese Haliburton was traded from the Kings to the Pacers, the overwhelming majority of Kings fans knew the Pacers were acquiring a special player. Obviously Duarte isn’t near Haliburton’s level, but what’s your read on Duarte’s ceiling? Will the Pacers regret giving up on him this early? Or is he destined to be a somewhat replaceable end-of-rotation bench player?

Caitlin: For many of the reasons that have already been laid out, Duarte probably wasn’t going to reach his ceiling or maybe even crack the rotation in the near-term future with the Pacers. Remember that stat about how rarely the Pacers won his minutes when he didn’t make shots? Last season, there were 25 games in which Bennedict Mathurin didn’t make a three, and the Pacers still won his minutes in 11 of those contests. To be fair, that’s somewhat reductive. Duarte and Mathurin aren’t solely responsible for whether the Pacers outscore an opponent. That said, Mathurin very notably averaged 6.6 free throw attempts in the games when the Pacers were in the plus while he was on the floor. He’s more capable of mitigating for his miscues, at least offensively. Nembhard, meanwhile, is more likely to be in the right spots on defense and offers far more with regard to level-headed playmaking. And, here’s the thing: The Pacers also have Bruce Brown, Buddy Hield, Aaron Nesmith, and Ben Sheppard – all of whom are no taller than 6’5 and probably ideally play either the two or three, with some flexibility.

As such, the Pacers won’t likely regret that they gave up on him this early. If anything, they should regret that they didn’t trade him as an older rookie when the decision was made to veer toward a rebuild – especially if they were going to draft players with more upside at his same position.

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19 Comments
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TheGrantNapear
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July 21, 2023 10:23 am

Awesome deep dive into Duarte! This sort of content is appreciated.

I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get rookie Duarte and not sophmore Duarte.
Health, opportunity and Domas should equate to rookie Duarte.

jwalker1395
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July 21, 2023 11:11 am

Ik we’re here to talk about Duarte but that cross court bounce pass from Domas in the fifth clip 🥶

andy_sims
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July 21, 2023 11:28 am
Reply to  jwalker1395

That’s our Domas! (canned audience laughter)

ArcoThunder
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July 22, 2023 11:36 am
Reply to  jwalker1395

Hahahaha

I thought the same thing.

RobHessing
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July 21, 2023 12:24 pm

If Caitlin is ever in the market for a 2nd team to cover…

What a great Q & A. Thanks to both of you!

UpgradedToQuestionable
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July 21, 2023 2:15 pm
Reply to  RobHessing

Agree – I am liking the skills from Caitlin, well done to her and Tony for an enjoyable analysis and read.

murraytant
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July 21, 2023 1:13 pm

what does “won his minutes” mean?

Henry
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July 21, 2023 1:27 pm
Reply to  murraytant

That the team outscored their opponent in the minutes that player was on the court. Basically, plus-minus.

Excellent breakdown. Thank you Caitlin.

MichaelMack
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July 21, 2023 2:19 pm

Terrific content, nice to read Caitlin again.

I am excited for Duarte, he seems very likely to be able to contribute in a small role, and perhaps as he gains experience in the system be able to soak up minutes if injury strikes or trades are made.

Putthegundown
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July 21, 2023 3:13 pm

Man the look on their faces when they see all the zombied out homeless and mentally ill downtown.

murraytant
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July 21, 2023 4:33 pm

This could go either way.
Duarte could be a steal and regain his rookie season form.
Duarte could have “too late to fix” flaws in his game that were covered up by the second-year injuries.

Risk and maybe reward. C. Cooper’s comments did not mince words and gave me pause on immediate elation. Wait and see.

ArcoThunder
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July 22, 2023 11:42 am

I got a lot of “pump the brakes” vibes from her commentary on Duarte.

Thats totally fair and probably good for me/us to adjust my/our expectations. That said, there’s definitely a world where he has a bit of a breakout year in this incredibly efficient offense with several individuals who already work really well together and his already established and proven on court chemistry with arguably the most important player on the roster.

very much worth the “gamble”.

I enjoyed hearing how guys like Durant and Lebron had high praise for him as a rookie. When the best in the world recognize another players game, that goes a long way in my (so very much not best in the world) brain.

Last edited 10 months ago by ArcoThunder
Sacto_J
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July 22, 2023 12:17 pm

The Good: it sounds like there’s going to be a bit of a dog fight for the 2nd / 3rd tier wings for this upcoming squad between guys like Edwards, Duarte, Ellis, Jones, etc.
The Bad: none of them would really excel, at this point, as starters if needed, so I wouldn’t consider this a huge “strength”, necessarily.
The Ugly: depth may not have been upgraded much, if at all, in an area we really needed some growth in, IMO. No cavalry this year, so improvements will HAVE to come from within, at this point. A sketchy proposition for a team that really may have overachieved last year. Duarte would really have to find that rhythm with Domas again to make a significant enough impact to push this squad forward a bit but it would certainly be nice to have an additional threat off the bench, especially one that gives us a plus on both sides of the court. In a perfect scenario, I could see a 2nd unit of Mitchell, Monk, Duarte, Lyles and Noel being kinda tough to score against, actually, while not giving up completely on the offensive end, either. Would give Coach Brown a ton of rotational flexibility, something we definitely need to improve upon, I think.

Henry
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July 22, 2023 2:07 pm
Reply to  Sacto_J

I actually think Sasha wil be coming off the bench before anyone other other than Monk. So in that respect, I think depth is improved. Duarte and Noel basically replace TD and Metu, which is a wash.

I dare say that I wouldn’t be surprised if Sasha was starting before the season’s over depending on how much he can hold his own on the defensive side of things, or if Keegan can step up defensively and be the one that guards the best opposing forward.

Jack
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July 24, 2023 9:45 am
Reply to  Henry

IMO Sasha will be starting earlier than you think.

Sacto_J
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July 29, 2023 1:42 pm
Reply to  Jack

For who? He’d have to be better than Barnes, and I don’t think that’s the case at all.

Jman1949
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July 23, 2023 7:50 am

OT:

Nerlen Noel’s contract is only partially guaranteed—easy to move on if he doesn’t work out.

andy_sims
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July 24, 2023 9:00 am
Reply to  Jman1949

McNair strikes again.

Klam
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Nostradumbass 18
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July 24, 2023 9:08 am
Reply to  Jman1949

Oh wow, so only about one third of the contract will be in tact by opening night.

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