Malcolm Brogdon looked like the perfect role player with the Milwaukee Bucks. In his first season with the Indiana Pacers, he’s playing like a star.
The term “role player” is an all-encompassing one, and it is almost always construed to mean any player who is not a star. But the truth is that there are different kinds of role players. There are shooters and defenders and rim-runners and backup point guards and more.
But there are also role players who are role players simply because their skill sets are limited in some way that prevents them from being any more than that; and then there are role players who are role players due to circumstance. Kyle Korver, even at his peak in Atlanta, is an example of the former. He’s one of the best shooters in the history of the league, but he also had limitations that necessitated that he fill a fairly narrow role. Chris Bosh in Miami is an example of the latter. He was clearly capable of being a star, as he was during his time in Toronto; but because he was playing with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, he subjugated his game, slid into a tertiary role in the offense, and did a lot of the dirty work defensively.
The transition Bosh underwent — from star to role player — is far more common than the opposite. It’s not often that you see a player who is a complementary piece for several years, seemingly due to specific limitations, suddenly become a star. But for the second time in a few seasons, we may be seeing exactly that in Indiana.
Victor Oladipo was drafted to be a star in Orlando, but only looked like one in fits and starts, and was eventually packaged with Domantas Sabonis to acquire Serge Ibaka. After a year working as supporting players in the Russell Westbrook Show, Oladipo and Sabonis were shipped off to Indiana in exchange for Paul George.
Oladipo remade his body, took on a significantly larger role, and blossomed into the star he was drafted to be, leading the Pacers to 48 wins and being named to both the All-Defense team and an All-NBA team. He looked a whole lot like that guy again last season before he ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his knee. He’s still recovering from that injury, but the player the Pacers signed to play alongside him in the backcourt upon return is in the midst of a breakout similar to the one Oladipo himself had two years ago.
Malcolm Brogdon was drafted four years ago by the Bucks to be a role player. He was a four-year player and three-year starter at Virginia; he was not thought of as a high-level athlete; he had injury concerns; and though he was a two-time All-Defense selection and three-time All-Conference member and two-time consensus All-American and a conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year winner, there were concerns about how he would contribute both offensive and defensively at the NBA level.
Brogdon quickly became an important role player for the Jason Kidd-coached Bucks, essentially doing the same kinds of things as he did at Virginia but on a slightly smaller scale, and he was named Rookie of the Year. (Albeit in one of the weakest races in recent memory.) He missed a bunch of time due to injury during his second season but provided the same things he had the year before. Finally, Mike Budenholzer made him a full-time starter last season, and he was one of the most efficient support players in the entire league: Brogdon joined the 50-40-90 club and was one of just 25 players who averaged at least 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.5 made 3s per game. (Oladipo was another.)
The Milwaukee version of Brogdon seemed like a (very good) role player not due to circumstance, but due to skill set. His extraordinary efficiency seemed like a product of relatively low usage; and the role of secondary ball-handler alongside another point guard suited him perfectly. His strong multi-positional defense seemed like a product of playing alongside an all-world destroyer like Giannis Antetokounmpo, which allowed Brogdon to focus on playmaking and defense and spot-up shooting and beating closeouts.
It made perfect sense to view Brogdon that way. I viewed him that way, and I really liked his game from the jump. The Bucks seemingly viewed him that way as well, and they balked at paying Brogdon the $85 million over four years he was given by the Pacers this offseason, whether due to concerns about the luxury tax or his health. (Brogdon played only 187 of a possible 246 regular-season games in Milwaukee, a rate of 76 percent.)
But that view of Brogdon may just have been wrong, if his start to the year as Indiana’s lead dog is any indication. Brogdon is sporting by far the highest usage rate of his career (27.3 percent) and has only barely dropped off in scoring efficiency compared to last season (59.8 true shooting percentage). He is assisting on a career-best 46.6 percent of teammate baskets while on the floor, and his turnover rate is still a very low 13.1 percent. And while Brogdon was often a dependent player in Milwaukee (43 percent of his 2-point baskets and 83 percent of his 3s were assisted during his three years with the Bucks), he has been an independent one so far in Indiana (19 percent of his 2s and 50 percent of his 3s have been assisted so far).
Brogdon’s getting to the rim pretty much whenever he wants (his 18.3 drives per game are third-most in the league behind only James Harden and DeMar DeRozan), but he’s also still willingly launching from deep (4.8 attempts per game). He appears far more decisive off the bounce than he ever was in Milwaukee, and whether that’s due to a change in circumstance or a change in mentality, it’s really working for him. It’s working for the Pacers, too, and when Oladipo comes back from his injury, it’ll help him as well.
Indiana has not had a perimeter playmaker as dynamic as this season’s version of Brogdon during Oladipo’s time with the team, and there were times during their playoff run two years ago where the entire offense was dependent on Oladipo’s ability to manufacture a shot in isolation. That’s difficult for anyone to do over and over again, and the Pacers offense buckled under the strain of his having to do so.
Bojan Bogdanovic showed last season that he had the ability to be a dynamic secondary creator, but it took Oladipo’s absence for him to fully blossom into the role. Now Oladipo will rejoin a team with a readymade perimeter partner, and that should help him shine. That duo’s creativity should help the Pacers see how well their frontcourt experiment works, as they pair Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis with one or both of their guards, and cycle through all different two- and three- and four-man combinations. All that experimenting is valuable for a team with playoff aspirations, because you may need to be a different kind of team depending on which opponent you face in a specific postseason series.
The Pacers can do some of that tinkering now, and even more of it when Oladipo returns. If Brogdon can maintain something resembling this level of production, the Pacers suddenly look a whole lot more interesting.