Taylor

Terry Taylor defied every obstacle on his way to the NBA.

Not a shooter, for his size—and anyway, too short to withstand the rigors of the League.

Big-school pedigree? Nope.

A draft pick? Forget about it.

His own head coach for the Indiana Pacers, Rick Carlisle, couldn’t quite recall what school Taylor had arrived from as an undrafted free-agent—Austin Peay, for the uninitiated or interested—a fact that got endless mileage on social media during Taylor’s early days bouncing between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, the Pacers’ G-League affiliate.

At the time, Taylor was still as much curiosity as core piece to the Pacers—the power forward with the stature of a shooting guard who rebounded like prime Dennis Rodman during his time on the court. For much of December and January, he split time between spot duty with the Pacers and regular starts with the Mad Ants. He played a total of 18 games for Fort Wayne, putting up the occasional absurd stat line—25 points, 18 boards and 4 blocks in his debut, a 23-20 in his first road trip to Wisconsin, a wild 39-14 showing in Indianapolis in the G-League roughly 12 hours after being in New Orleans with the big club.

“I wasn’t playing,” he said. “I had to stay in shape. I texted the GM and just said I think it would be good for me to go back down to the G and play some games and get some games under my belt. I knew my time would come but what I didn’t want was to be thrown out there and not be ready for the moment. That whole time, that back and forth between the G-League and the Pacers, was teaching me to be patient and trust in what God was doing for me.”

As injuries mounted, as trades re-shaped the roster, Taylor became a more integral part of the rotation.

The Pacers weren’t tanking in a traditional sense—you can’t be accused of stripping things down to the studs just for draft picks when you add potential cornerstones like Tyrese Halliburton and Buddy Hield from Sacramento and Jalen Smith, a former lottery pick buried deep on the bench in Phoenix who needed a fresh start in the Midwest. But it was certainly a transitional year in the Crossroads of America, one that afforded a player like Taylor—undrafted, unheralded, just needing a chance to get some minutes and get his feet under him on an NBA court—myriad opportunities to do just that.

The thing about Terry Taylor is, he doesn’t need a second chance. First one will do just fine.

“The Pacers have believed in me from the beginning, from Summer League to training to putting me into their G-League system,” Taylor said. “They’re trying to have me as a building piece going forward, and that’s very reassuring. But at the same time, I have to back up my end of it and I’m going to do my very best. My whole thing is to keep proving why I belong here and why the Pacers aren’t making a mistake. I’m still playing with that chip on my shoulder because I’ve got more to prove—that this year wasn’t a fluke, I can keep doing the same thing and add on to my game.”

Altogether, his NBA numbers on the surface—33 games, seven starts, 9.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per outing—weren’t the same caliber as his G-League showing or the bonkers career at Austin Peay, where he became not only the all-time leading scorer in program history but also the first 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound performer in the storied legacy that is Austin Peay hoops. But drop the five appearances he made for the Pacers of fewer than 10 minutes—essentially, forget the times he was in for mop-up duty—and his per-game averages jump to 11.4 points and 5.9 boards, while his field goal percentage remains a robust 61.0 percent, a mark that puts him among the NBA’s top-10 across a full season.

But if you’re the type to let the numbers tell the whole story, then you need to know that even at 6-5, even with limited reps at the highest level, even in an offense where Taylor is a tertiary option rather than the primary, he has carved out a role as one of the most feared rollers to the basket off the pick and roll. Via Synergy Sports, the advanced analytics company that uses video to track the upper levels of basketball for data, Taylor was the second-most efficient player in points per possession (PPP) as the roll man among all NBA players with at least 40 attempts, with his 1.450 mark second only to Oklahoma City’s Mike Muscala and just ahead of luminaries like Atlanta’s John Collins (fourth), Los Angeles’ Lebron James (sixth) and Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges (seventh).

“It’s good to know the little things I do are showing up and getting noticed,” Taylor admits of his status as an analytics darling. “I think it shows I can show up and do whatever my team needs me to do.”

Wide-bodied, agile, with soft hands and a knack for finishing at the rim—okay, this adds up to a good roll man. That combination has as much to do with physics as it does with hoops—give the large man space to get up a head of steam, feed him the ball and then watch the assembled defenders scatter in fear or try to catch a body at the rim, depending on their risk tolerance.

So how’s the 6-5 guy putting up comparable PPP numbers (1.417) around the basket in non-post up situations to giants like Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Ayton and Jarrett Allen?

Those guys are lob threats from the moment they check in to a game, and Taylor is six-to-seven inches shorter than those perennial All-Stars and indeed is smaller in stature than most who appear alongside them on the leaderboard—among the top 50 players (by PPP) with at least 130 non-post up possessions near the basket, only Golden State’s Gary Payton II and Denver’s Monte Morris are shorter in stature than Taylor.

Taylor has worked to refine his game—he can still bully a player when the situation warrants it, which led Denver head coach Mike Malone to refer to him as a “man-child” after the Nuggets and Pacers met in late-March—but he also showcases a variety of fakes, pump-fakes, up-fakes, spins and other moves that harken back to the days of Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s adapted. He’s evolved.

He's a pro. And he’s got the “Welcome to the NBA” moment to prove it.

“I checked in at Milwaukee and had to guard Giannis,” he said. “I rarely show my emotion in a game, but in my head I was like, ‘Yo, I’m really checking the two-time MVP right now. This is my matchup, and I’m really here.’”

Taylor got the proverbial bag at the end of the regular-season—the Pacers, impressed with his performance, converted the two-way contracts of both Taylor and Duane Washington, Jr. into four-year standard deals. This provides security for Taylor and a relatively low-cost building block for the Pacers as they move on from some longer-tenured players and into a new phase.

“We’re taking the right steps,” he said. “Come next season, I feel like we’re going to be better. When you got guys like Tyrese and Buddy and Chris [Duarte] who want to give the ball up and do what’s best for the team and move the ball, that’s infectious. We built the camaraderie quick, and it’s only gonna get better. We have to compete, hold one another accountable and take it from there.”

It's an exciting phase for the Pacers, one Terry Taylor not only gets to be part of, but contribute to. A year ago, the question was, “How will Terry Taylor make his mark as a professional basketball player?”

Now, with his future more certain and his role ever-expanding, the question is not how; it has instead become, with his opportunity, his game and his work-ethic all seemingly without limit, what won’t he be able to accomplish?