Indiana Pacers forward Chris Duarte entered the worst slump of his career on Saturday night. The young winger had 14 points in a win in Boston on December 21, but in the following 11 games Duarte averaged 3.2 points per game on 18.3% shots from the field. He couldn’t do anything.
The 2021 lottery pick threw off its first shot in a game against the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 27. He didn’t make another attempt until his second try against the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 6 — a total of Duarte missed 21 shots in a row.
“He was out for a month and a half. Those things take time,” head coach Rick Carlisle said of Duarte’s struggles Jan. 6. Duarte was sidelined for over six weeks earlier in the season with a left ankle sprain. “It’s a conditioning and then a rhythm thing. I see signs that he’s getting closer.”
Carlisle explained how difficult it can be for a player to regain their sharpness and rhythm after missing a significant time. It was clear that Duarte was struggling with that task, although he mostly fired open shots and did whatever it took to fit into the team after 21 games missed.
He had a few makes — albeit mixed with multiple errors — against the Knicks and Hawks earlier this week, suggesting he was on the precipice of a breakout game. This performance took place on Saturday evening.
In a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Duarte was the Pacers’ best player. He went 7/15 and made more shots than any other pacer. He knocked down four threes, grabbed three rebounds and dished out three assists. He was extremely productive and was +2 on an 18-point loss.
In the end, Duarte finished with 25 points, his second-best game of the season and fourth-best of his entire career. He seemed mentally busy and in rhythm all night, two qualities he’d lacked in his recent performances. Duarte looked more like the 2021-22 version of himself.
“Feels good man. I needed it. I needed to see the ball go in,” Duarte said after the game. He thanked the Pacers coaches and his teammates — particularly TJ McConnell — for helping him stay positive off the court. “It’s great. I felt like I found a rhythm thanks to TJ and my teammates out there.”
Duarte’s struggles were harrowing. As a rookie, he was an excellent shot and a solid goalscorer, and while growth in the NBA isn’t linear, there was hope he would continue down that path this season. That hasn’t happened every night, however, as the two-year-old pro has adjusted to new teammates and a new style of play.
Some of Duarte’s struggles can be attributed to bad luck and a loss of confidence. He’s making better shots this year, they just don’t go in — 65.9% of his shot attempts this season were rated “open” or “wide open” by the NBA, versus 57.3% as a rookie. The looks he gets were great, he just struggled to actually get them.
Despite not seeing the ball drop, he remained confident and has been watching videos to keep his spirits up since his freshman season. “I kept telling myself, ‘It’s coming, it’s close, and I’m going to have an outbreak, I’m going to get over it,'” Duarte said Saturday. He was right.
As Carlisle noted, Duarte’s teammates were patient with him. You know how hard it can be to get back into rhythm after more than a month. McConnell missed several months last season with a wrist injury, so he knows that better than anyone.
“I feel like people forget he’s been out for at least a month. It’s not that easy to just get thrown back into the cast and produce like you did,” McConnell said of Duarte. “It takes time,” he added. McConnell, who was a key veteran for many young pacers, reminded Duarte to stay positive and that stretches like this can happen over a long season.
Duarte has had a few setbacks this past season, especially around the All-Star break. But nobody was that poor. That’s why it’s so significant that he broke out of his trough for even one confidence-boosting night. The Pacers hope he can continue to play better in the future.
“Chris Duarte’s night tonight was significant. You sit with an ankle for a month and a half [injury], getting back in is not easy. You don’t just step back and start taking shots,” Carlisle said after the game. He gave Duarte more time to build his rhythm and the 25-year-old played more than 26 minutes of action for the second time this season. Tonight all that stuff bore fruit in terms of his rhythm and things like that. That was great to see.”
Carlisle has told Duarte to focus on his defense and competitiveness in recent games to keep him focused. It finally paid off on Saturday night.
“We all know what Chris can do. Obviously, Chris has taken a hard hand this season,” center Jalen Smith said after the game. Almost the entire Pacers roster has seen Chris Duarte play better than him in recent weeks, and they know he’s capable of nights like Saturday. His performance against the slump will help his confidence and that mental boost could lead to more effective performances in the future.
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