THABEET GOES ON
Hasheem Thabeet doesn’t like talking about the past. You can’t blame him. To call the first few phases of his NBA career underwhelming would be a polite understatement. Before signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 7’3 center averaged 2.2 points and 2.7 rebounds in 10.5 minutes per game. This year, the numbers aren’t noticeably better — the difference is in the absence of DNP’s and disappointment. The No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft started 13 games in his first season with the Memphis Grizzlies, none in his second. He fell out of favor in Memphis, was forgotten in Houston and scarcely saw meaningful minutes in Portland.
“He hasn’t had a lot of success for probably many reasons,” said Thunder head coach Scott Brooks. “He was on teams that didn’t really need his services or need his skills at that particular point and he probably wasn’t ready to give them the type of minutes they needed.”
When poor play is coupled with extreme expectations, the result is relentless criticism. It can’t be easy to stay grounded through that. It can’t be easy to keep going. But the only way for Thabeet to be a regular in a rotation was to be strong enough to sacrifice and believe in himself. You can get a glimpse into his positive thinking if you follow his Twitter feed full of caps-locked affirmations and motivational phrases.
According to David Thorpe, Thabeet’s head coaches in Memphis and Houston never gave him much of a chance. As a Rocket, he played 27 minutes from February of 2011 to March of 2012. “He was young,” said Kevin Martin, who starred for the Rockets while Thabeet didn’t exactly blossom on their bench. “It takes a right group of coaches to get young players going and maybe he just really wasn’t feeling his whole Houston era, but it’s totally different here. Just like he doesn’t really probably want to talk about Houston, I think everybody moved past that. He’s just been so positive here.”
In the summer of 2011, Thabeet spent time at Thorpe’s Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Florida. Martin, Thorpe’s client, who is now playing for Oklahoma City, called Thorpe in November and told him the Thunder version of Thabeet was reminiscent of what he was like back then.
What was similar about that Thabeet and this Thabeet? “Just actually liking to play the game of basketball,” Martin said. “He came in every day happy, wanting to work hard and that’s kind of what he has done here. That’s a credit to the coaches and his teammates here, getting him in a mindframe to want to continue his basketball career on a high note.”
If you’re trying to rejuvenate your career, knowing you connect with your coach and have a chance to contribute can’t hurt your cause. Brooks and Thabeet talked about his troubled times shortly after he signed in July. “Sometimes you gotta explain to people so they get to know you before they even get to spend time with you,” said Thabeet. “That’s what I did, I had a few minutes to talk to him and he understood my situation and he just said he’d work with me. Since then, we’ve just been good like that.”
“We have him at a good time,” Brooks said. “He’s been in the league for four years now. He works hard. He has great enthusiasm for the game and I enjoy being around him. I enjoy pushing him and challenging him and figuring out ways for him to get better.”
Thabeet started working out with Oklahoma City’s assistant coaches at their practice facility immediately after signing in July and he hasn’t stopped. “He’s working hard after practice every day and coming in even when we have days off and getting work in,” said Martin. “He’s just a different guy right now.”
Part of the reason the proverbial sun has risen for Thabeet is that he’s getting along with the group. “Great guys, man,” he says of the team’s leaders — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins — who have welcomed him on and off the floor. “They just compete, motivate, they just want to win. When you have a great group of guys, young guys that compete every night, you just gotta work hard for them. If they trust you, you gotta do something with that.”
Thabeet called the team a “big family of big kids”. This family earned a remarkable reputation and record by grooming superstars who stay steady in the spotlight and surrounding them with responsible role players. Thabeet is asked only to be the latter. “They don’t expect me to come in and give them 20 every night. [They just ask] me to be a part of the team and do what I do, which is rebound and just be the force in the middle on defense. That’s what I do.”
“The best thing he does is he’s active, he rebounds, he blocks shots,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison. “But his skillset is not to be a back-to-the-basket scorer and I think when you’re taken at that pick, people expect that all of a sudden. If that’s not who you are, and you have those expectations, you’re not going to be able to live up to them. I just think people have to look at players for who they are regardless of where they get picked. And as an individual player you can’t get caught up in that, either. You have to do what you do and that’s who you are in the league.”
Martin agrees with Collison’s assessment. “As a player you just have to, especially in his case, you just have to worry about the task at hand and not the story somebody’s trying to write or frame on you,” he said. “The story lasts for one day, but developing into a player, that’s 365 days a year, so you gotta just focus on that.”
On a roster where even the most tremendously talented players are totally team-first, it’s no accident Thabeet is finding his way. “I think what we like to try to do is take everybody in and everybody does the work,” said Collison. “That’s what we focus on is doing the work. I think instead of him trying to live up to some sort of expectation, because you know he’s a high pick, we’ve taken that away and just said, ‘Do your job every day. That’s all you’ve got to focus on is doing your job every day and you can help us. That’s what we want you to do.’ And I think that kind of shift in his mindset has helped to where every time he makes a mistake he’s not thinking he’s letting everyone down. It’s just a mistake, that’s all it is. Everyone makes them.”
Oklahoma City is 26-8 on the season and will send two or three players to the All-Star game. Relieving Perkins off the bench, when Thabeet makes a mistake it hardly makes a mark. This isn’t what anyone anticipated when he was drafted, but now it’s easy to envision him swatting shots in the Finals. After three trying seasons, two trips to the D-League, three teams and four coaches, Thabeet has finally found a home.
“This is just a different opportunity,” said Thabeet. “I’m happy to be a part of it now and that’s what my focus is on.”
JUST BYU IT
While “Hasheem Thabeet bust” is the second thing that pops up when you type his first name into Google, “Jimmer Fredette bust” is only the third for his.
The Sacramento Kings drafted Fredette No. 10 in 2011 after he averaged a ridiculous 28.9 points and 4.3 assists per game in his senior season at Brigham Young University. No one thought the guard would come close to those numbers — or his almost absurd averages of 20.7 field goal attempts and 8.5 from behind the 3-point line — as a professional, but his rookie season still left much to be desired for his fans, his team and himself.
“He wasn’t ready to play in the NBA yet. Everyone thought he was,” said Kings head coach Keith Smart. “He wasn’t ready for the NBA yet. I’ve seen a lot of guys come in with the college way of how they play from a guard perspective and you’re dealing with a lot of talented guards in the NBA every night. And when a young guy comes in, the speed of the game is the biggest adjustment.”
It wasn’t just the meager 7.9 points and 1.4 assists per game, it was the fact some familiar draft day criticisms seemed so sound. Fredette had his moments, but most of the time he seemed a bit slow, a bit small, unable to consistently get his game off the way he did in college. It was no shock he couldn’t defend his position right away, but he was supposed to score. He was surely supposed to manage more than a 38.6 percent mark from the field.
Smart replaced a fired Paul Westphal just seven games into the season. Adding to that turmoil was last year’s lockout. Fredette couldn’t speak to the Kings’ coaches in the summer. He couldn’t develop in Summer League. There was an abbreviated training camp, two preseason games and a schedule that hardly allowed for any practice time. On a team lacking veteran leadership and proficient passing, these things matter even more. “He just got thrown right into it,” said Smart. “‘Play, Jimmer,’ — that was it.”
On a handful of occasions, “play” wasn’t even it, as Fredette didn’t see the floor for a single second. On many more than a handful, he saw the floor and seemed simply subpar. He looked like a different, far less confident guy than the one whose name, story and shooting stroke converged to create a national phenomenon at BYU. Thanks to “Jimmermania” or “Jimmer Fever”, Fredette had supporters and detractors in higher volume, voicing opinions at higher volumes than any other No. 10 pick in recent history. When everybody has something to say, it’s best to try to tune most of it out. Fredette took some advice, though — from his family, and from those he trusts.
SOME SAGE ADVICE
Los Angeles Clippers color commentator and BYU alum Michael Smith sauntered to Sacramento’s court before the Clippers played the Kings back in March. He saw Fredette shooting. The two briefly shook hands once before, at a Utah-BYU football game in September — “I just wanted to meet him, I never met him. He’s the one who broke all my records,” said Smith — but had never sat and shared stories. When Fredette was done with his warmup, Smith approached him, reintroduced himself and the two got to talking. “I obviously knew who he was because he’s in a lot of the record books in BYU. A very good scorer, played in the NBA,” said Fredette.
Fredette’s previous month included just one double-digit scoring game and one 20-plus minute game. Smith noticed some shaky signs in a recent performance, so he asked Fredette how many times in his senior season he looked over his shoulder and back at the bench after a miss. Fredette said he never did; Smith said to stop doing it. Smith asked him how many times he took a shot the year prior and wondered if it was a good one. Fredette, again, said never. Smith said to stop it. Smith asked if he ever thought, as a senior in college, that anyone on the court was better than him. Fredette said, ‘Nope,’ and Smith said to not think it now.
Fredette’s obviously not going to be the best player on the court at the NBA level, but Smith wanted him to play with the attitude that he was. Fredette entered that game a couple of minutes into the second quarter and missed a 3-pointer on his first possession. A minute later, Eric Bledsoe blocked his jumper. But Fredette didn’t then look over at the bench — he had a mini-explosion, hitting three 3-pointers and dishing three assists in just over four minutes. He had 11 points on 3-for-5 shooting in just over nine first half minutes, but Smart hardly played him in the second half. Unpredictable minutes and uneven performances would mark the rest of his season, but Smith was pleased he saw a glimpse of what Fredette is capable of.
“I went to him after the game,” said Smith. “And I said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Do not look over your shoulder. People pick up on that stuff. If you’re looking over your shoulder when you make a mistake, the guys on my team, they’re looking at that. They’re going to attack you. They’re going to sense that you’re uneasy or you’re worried what they’re thinking. They’re going to come after you. People expose that stuff at this level. You just have to be rock solid and fearless.’”
What Smith didn’t say was he could “totally relate to what Jimmer was going through”. The 13th pick in the 1989 NBA Draft, Smith was out of the league after three seasons. Smith said he should have been more of a jerk, and that the only time he felt like he played with the same confidence he did as an All-American in college was a seven game stretch when he started as a rookie.
“In fairness, I did not succeed in my mind … I never became the player I thought I should have been in the NBA,” said Smith. “And I just didn’t want him to go through the same thing.”
BYU: THE VERB
Fredette split last summer between his home in Denver, Summer League in Las Vegas and, of course, Sacramento. Smart took a trip to Colorado for about a week to work out with him and talk to him about what he expected in his second season.
“I’ve told him just BYU it,” Smart said. “Don’t worry about [it] if you take a quick shot. I trust your jump shot. When you take a shot, I don’t worry about any of that stuff.”
This year Fredette’s been not just more confident but far more efficient, which is what improving your 3-point percentage from 36 to 40 percent and getting to the line 5.1 times per 36 minutes instead of 1.5 times per 36 will do for you. The numbers back up his claims of being more aggressive — he is using one of every four Kings possessions when he’s on the floor instead of one in every five.
“I think it all starts with your mindset,” Fredette says of the change in his game. “Going out there and having a purpose when you’re out there to score the basketball. That’s what this team wants me to do when I come into the game: to provide a spark and just score the basketball and be that threat. Whether I’m making shots or not, they still have to play honest and [it] maybe opens other guys up as well. But with having that mindset and being aggressive every single time down the floor and taking shots when you’re open, trying to make opportunities for yourself and your teammates, you just get into a flow of a game and you feel much better out there, much more confident and you just go play.”
After a rough game for Fredette in Toronto last week, Sacramento forward Jason Thompson said it probably would have bothered Fredette if it had happened a year ago. This year, though, he’s mature enough to move on. “You can just tell, man,” Thompson said. “Even when he’s coming off the bench and not playing as much, he’s still coming in with confidence. Not a lot of guys have that and he has that. He’ll come in and shoot a 25-footer unconscious.”
“I’m having more fun this year,” said Fredette. “To play basketball for a living is a dream come true and it’s always fun, but sometimes it can feel like a job if you let it. So you just gotta have fun every single time you play, laugh, joke around. And I’m enjoying myself this year even more so than last year.”
Fredette said it would be fun to impart some knowledge to himself as a rookie. “I would just tell myself, ‘Hey, don’t back down or anything,’” he said. “‘Go out there and play your game, play aggressively and be yourself out there and you’re going to be successful.’”
A certain other ex-BYU star would be happy to hear that.