INDIANAPOLIS — From humble beginnings in Georgia, Goga Bitadze had a dream to play in the NBA.
“As soon as I put my eyes on it, it was like superheroes playing basketball,” Bitadze said. “I could not envision it being possible for me.”
The 6-foot-11, 245-pound Bitadze now has a chance to become one of those superheroes after being picked 18th in the NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night. The Pacers feel like they got a steal by taking the Georgian center with Euroleague experience in the middle of the first round. Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard said the team had him in the top 10 on its draft board.
“Goga is everything we wanted in a player,” Pritchard said. “He’s tough. He’s all about the team. He’s willing to do anything.”
The selection created a logjam in the frontcourt, with Bitadze joining 6-11 lefty Damontas Sabonis and 6-11 center Myles Turner. It also signals the Pacers are likely going to part ways with 6-8 power forward Thaddeus Young, who is an unrestricted free agent.
“You look at our roster with Myles, with Damontas, I think you have a lot of flexibility, a lot of minutes,” Pritchard said. “We have 96 minutes with two positions.”
There were obstacles along the way in Bitadze’s path to his basketball dreams. He started playing basketball when he was 6, but when he was 10, he and his family were forced to hide for five days in their native Sagarejo, Georgia, during the Russian-Georgian wars.
“It was very tough times for everybody, but I think it made us a lot stronger and really close to each other,” Bitadze said.
Bitadze said fellow Georgian native Zaza Pachulia, who has played 15 years in the NBA and is currently a center with the Detroit Pistons, was an idol growing up. So was his dad, Gocha Bitadze, a 6-7 forward who played professionally in Georgia.
“A lot stronger than I am,” Bitadze said with a laugh.
Bitadze possesses shot blocking ability, a low post scoring game and shooting range out to the 3-point line, but his goal is to get physically stronger during the offseason and in summer league play.
“There’s a lot of great athletes, a lot of strong guys,” Bitadze said. “How far I can go, we’ll see. I want to give it 100 percent every day. I want to work.”
Pritchard said that Bitadze has already shown toughness playing professionally for three years overseas against grown men.
“He’s got a 7-3 wingspan, and he’s got good shoulders,” Pritchard said. “He’s got a set of shoulders on him, and the thing is he loves basketball. If you watch his film, he likes to get dirty. He’s not afraid to get dirty.”
Pritchard said the Pacers are taking a month-to-month approach in monitoring the rehabilitation of franchise guard Victor Olapido, who is recovering from a torn quad tendon in his right knee he suffered last Jan. 23.
Reports have surfaced Oladipo could return by December or January. A former Indiana University standout, Oladipo has been working out with his personal trainers in Miami in an effort to get back on the court as soon as possible. But Pritchard wants to make sure Olapido is back to 100 percent before returning to action.
“This is a long-term plan, a long term how do we get Victor back into a place where he’s playing a high level?” Pritchard said. “The one thing I can tell you is where he is at today is impressive.”
MORGAN TO JAZZ
IU senior forward Juwan Morgan didn’t get picked in the NBA Draft. But shortly after the draft ended, the 6-8, 235-pound Morgan signed a free agent contract with the Utah Jazz with an invite to summer league.
Morgan appeared in all 35 games for IU last season, finishing second in scoring (15.5 ppg) while leading the team in rebounding (8.2 ppg).
“It only takes one,” Morgan wrote on his Twitter account Friday. “See you soon.”
BOWEN TO PACERS
An NBA source confirmed Friday that Brian Bowen has signed a two-way, G League deal with the Pacers. Under terms of the deal, the 6-7 Bowen can be stashed at Indiana’s G League affiliate with Fort Wayne and called up throughout the season.
A 2017 McDonald’s All-American who played his final two years at La Lumiere Prep in LaPorte, Bowen was at the center of the FBI probe into college basketball when allegations surfaced he was offered cash and benefits to play at Louisville and other schools. Bowen didn’t play college basketball for either Louisville or South Carolina in 2017-18 before playing overseas in the NBL in Australia last season. In 30 games with the Sydney Kings, Bowen averaged 6.3 points and 3.2 rebounds.