Ian Mahinmi represents a substantial upgrade over the backup center he replaced, Lou Amundson. (Photo: Frank McGrath)

If it’s 80 degrees and you need sunscreen to survive lunch on the Circle, that, of course, means it’s time for … um … basketball?

Atmospheric anomalies notwithstanding, the Pacers’ season begins in just one week – Oct. 31 in Toronto, with the home opener on Nov. 3 against the Kings.

It has been a long preseason, particularly when measured against the lockout-truncated prep time last year and has been lacking the usual training camp drama of challenges for spots in the starting lineups and duels to make the roster.

But it nonetheless has offered the opportunity to gauge the progress of a team that expects to contend for the Central Division title and one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. With one exhibition remaining (Friday against Chicago in South Bend), it’s time for a preseason progress report.

The Revamped Bench

Until a solid outing against Cleveland Tuesday night (nine points, 11 assists), D.J. Augustin was disappointing with tentative play, poor shooting and disinterested defense. He seemed to come out of his shell against the Cavs and needs to keep that up in order for the switch from Darren Collison to be an upgrade.

Gerald Green has been spectacular at times, invisible at others, but certainly is a better option than the man he replaced, Leandro Barbosa. He is similarly streaky but does more things well and his athleticism is electrifying.

The revelation of the bunch has been Ian Mahinmi, who has been very, very good. For a 7-footer, he moves extremely well, has a face-up game that must be respected and attacks the hoop with vigor. It will be difficult to keep him off the court.

Of the holdovers, neither Lance Stephenson nor Tyler Hansbrough has demonstrated much individual growth. This is more distressing in the case of Stephenson, who is in a make-or-break year. Hansbrough remains one of the best hustle players around but he no longer looks like a possible long-term answer at power forward.

In fact, it could argued younger brother Ben has had the better camp and he still faces long odds at making the final roster, though currently one of the final 15.

Sam Young brings toughness and defense, while Jeff Pendergraph has shot the ball well, a nice complement to his athleticism, but likely won’t be in the rotation.

The Draft Picks

Don’t expect to see much of either Miles Plumlee or Orlando Johnson once the regular season begins. Plumlee can run and jump, but seems more interested in proving he can score than establishing what are supposed to be his primary skills – low-post defense and rebounding. Johnson hasn’t hit a shot since his pre-draft workout. If he wasn’t a second-round choice with guaranteed money, he very likely would’ve been gone in the first round of cuts.

As an aside, Perry Jones III, the Baylor forward the Pacers let slide past them in order to draft Plumlee, has been the talk of the Oklahoma City preseason with his explosiveness and versatility.

Whither Paul George?

This is the season we’ve all been pointing to as the one for George to begin cashing in on that immense potential. With Danny Granger out most of the preseason, he has had every opportunity to get his offensive game going with mixed results, averaging 16 points but shooting 37 percent while racking up turnovers. If he has lead-scorer ambition, he needs to unveil better lead-scorer instincts.

Medical Matters

The team has been cautious in bringing back Granger from a Platelet-Rich Plasma knee injection in mid-September. He has been practicing for a couple of weeks and made his first preseason game appearance in Cleveland, totaling nine points in 12 minutes, and will see his time gradually increase assuming no setbacks.

George Hill has not played in the preseason, initially due to a thumb injury but more recently because of a hip pointer. While that has opened the door for Augustin to pick up more playing time to develop a comfort level, it hasn’t done much for Hill’s rhythm with his first-unit teammates.


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