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Awaiting Junior Dunleavy's Impending Return

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A Daily Babble Production

If you told me a year and a half ago that I would have been excitedly anticipating Mike Dunleavy's return to action at this time, I might have jokingly asked whether you meant the coach or the player.  And then laughed at you regardless of your answer.

At that point, the best thing the younger Dunleavy had going for him might have been the facts that Jay Williams and Nikoloz Tskitishvili were picked second and fifth in the 2002 draft.  By comparison, the Warriors' selection of Junior with the third pick didn't come off quite as poorly as it could have.

Now, it's with a straight face that I write that Dunleavy's early-season injury trouble in Indiana has been one of the 2008-09 campaign's biggest bummers so far.  He is reportedly due back in the next week or so, at which point the Pacers will become even more worth watching in the interest of seeing whether Dunleavy's renaissance season a year ago was an aberration or his new standard going forward.

On a 36-win Pacers team, the former Duke Blue Devil's performance proved a breath of fresh air.  Splitting time between the two and three in his first season in Jim O'Brien's uptempo system, Dunleavy thrived. 

The wide-open style gave him plenty of time and open looks for his quick release jump shot, which helped extend his range.  He took more than 150 more three-point attempts than he had in any previous season, and he did so with far better accuracy: The career 36.2 percent three-point shooter knocked down 42.4 percent of his trey attempts.  As Dunleavy became more dangerous from the outside and opponents were forced to come out to play him outside the circles, he became even more of a threat from mid-range.  Unable to give him space on the perimeter, defenders were more vulnerable to ball-fakes and one- or two-dribble pull-ups, on which Dunleavy was very effective. 

It didn't hurt Dunleavy's production that he did an excellent job moving without the basketball last season.  His deft use of screens away from the ball and basket cuts freed him for no shortage of lay-ups and trips to the foul line, particularly against defenders overplaying to guard against the outside shot.  He went to the line nearly five times per game last season after never taking more than 3.3 free throw attempts per game over any of his first five seasons.

Mike Dunleavy was a more productive player than ever before by leaps and bounds last season.  He set career highs in field-goal percentage (47.6) three-point percentage (42.4 after never shooting 40 percent in a season) and free throw percentage (83.4 after never shooting 80 percent in a season).  His true shooting mark of 60.5 percent ranked among the league's best, and his 19.1 scoring average dwarfed his previous career high of 13.4 points per game.  Not only did the top eight scoring performances of Dunleavy's career come last season, but 10 of the 11 occasions on which he has ever broken 30 points in a game occurred in 2007-08. 

Without a doubt, Obie's fast-pace game helped up the volume of Dunleavy's statistics a bit.  More possessions in each game means more opportunities for shots, rebounds (he grabbed 5.2 per game) and assists (he dished out a career high 3.5 per).  But Mike Dunleavy was stunningly efficient all season, and he looked as comfortable as he ever has in his six seasons in this league.

The 2007-08 Mike Dunleavy was so far ahead of the Mike Dunleavy of years past that it is understandable that there will be concerns of his play a season ago being a one-time fluke.  But at just 28 years old, Dunleavy remains on the front side of his prime, and if his play last season was no aberration, the Pacers could find themselves with a dynamic offensive weapon to start alongside Danny Granger for years to come.