DALLAS — Begin to ask Chris Copeland how surreal it …; and the Indiana Pacers’ dread-locked power forward interrupts, “You mean my whole entire story?”
No, not that. Start in again and ask him about his stunning relocation from …; and Copeland again interrupts, “From Belgium?”
Actually from New York to Indiana.
In many ways, the 29-year-old (former) ever-hopeful overseas-league veteran remains more awe-struck by his winding journey through Europe that landed him in the NBA with the Knicks than by his surprising defection to the Pacers.
“Any time we can take a weapon away from someone else and put him on our team that’s always a good thing,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s someone that puts defenses’ nervous systems on [tilt]. He’s such a good shooter that you have to honor him and he gives you immediate spacing.”
The 6-foot-8, 235-pounder boasting coveted 3-point range is part of the Pacers’ reinforced and much-ballyhooed bench unit. He indeed can be a weapon. At some point he’ll even stop pinching himself as a reminder that he is actually living the dream that always seemed like a slowly rolling loose rebound, right there to snare, but always just beyond his finger tips.
Last season as the Class of 2006’s lone rookie, Copeland averaged 8.7 points in 15.4 mpg. He shot 42.1 percent from beyond the arc, tops among all rookies, second among power forwards and 13th overall. He made $473,604 with the Knicks. He’ll make $6.1 million over the next two seasons with the Pacers.
“I pinch myself every day,” Copeland told NBA.com last Friday prior to Indiana’s final preseason game against the Mavericks. “Even being here now I feel like I’m going to wake up back overseas somewhere saying, ‘OK, that was a good dream, that was a good one.’ It’s definitely surreal.”
Copeland played four seasons at Colorado and spent 2006-07 with the defunct Fort Worth Flyers of the NBA Development League before launching a European career. First came Spain, then Germany and, most recently Belgium, where he posted 18.5 ppg and 5.6 rpg over two seasons with Okapi Aalstar.
He had waited year after year for the NBA to call, for all the hard work to once-and-for-all reward him with his big break. Yet each passing birthday seemed only to kick the NBA further down the road. Only a few who’ve traveled this path find storybook endings. Gary Neal was 26 when he seized upon the San Antonio Spurs’ invite to leave Europe for a shot at Summer League. P.J. Tucker was 27 when the Phoenix Suns gave him a shot to resurrect his brief NBA career after five years overseas.
“You always have your days when you’re tired, but it’s a dream my family and I said when I was really small that that’s what I was going to do,” Copeland said. “It’s hard to turn my back or take days off. And to lay down that dream was impossible. That’s why, I mean, I shed a lot of tears over this game. I made promises that I wanted to keep to certain people. I just couldn’t, I couldn’t just fold.”
Six years after leaving Colorado, he got a call to join the Knicks in Summer League. Copeland was the team’s best player and he made the Knicks’ roster, eventually becoming a key rotation player. The Pacers, having taken the Miami Heat to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, were determined to strengthen their bench. They presented the restricted free agent with an offer sheet that the salary-cap-strapped Knicks couldn’t match.
Just like that, Copeland was headed to the hated Pacers, the team that dumped the Knicks in the East semifinals.
“[New York] was definitely a place I fell in love with, but here I am,” Copeland said. “It’s still funny, we make jokes about each other, the battles that we had last year. It’s definitely a change of atmosphere. They were our rivals, which was tough on the decision-making process, but it’s a great group of guys, a great staff. I don’t regret it. I’m glad I’m here.”
He joins crafty forward Luis Scola and veteran point guard C.J. Watson on a Pacers bench that will also include either Lance Stephenson or Danny Granger depending which one Vogel tabs as the starter (Granger will miss the first three weeks of the season with a calf injury). Copeland hasn’t demonstrated his long-range touch quite yet, connecting in the preseason on just 9-of-41 (22.2 percent) from 3-point range where he’s launched all but 14 of his shot attempts. But no one’s counting just yet.
“The biggest thing for Chris is to get acclimated to our system defensively,” David West said. “Obviously we know he can play offense. He can shoot the ball, he can score, but he’s got to get acclimated to how we play defensively because we’re a defensive-minded team first. But he’s going to help us at various points throughout the year.”