A day after promising not to talk much with the media this season, and only moments after media relations director David Benner had cajoled him into stopping for a chat following the opening practice of training camp, Roy Hibbert talked on Tuesday.
He talked rather expansively, too. About his summer workouts with NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, his plan to be a more effective low-post player in the upcoming season and his refreshed and revised outlook.
All of those things became necessary given the way Hibbert finished last season, when he was the most obvious of several factors that led to a disappointing finish. After playing in the All-Star game for the second time in February, he struggled with his reduced role in the offense late in the season, and lost confidence along the way. He hit just 3-of-28 shots in the final four regular season games, and had six scoreless games over the final 23, playoffs included.
His importance to the team's game-by-game fate was obvious. The Pacers lost three of the four playoff games in which he failed to score, and were 7-2 when he scored in double figures.
Hibbert is a sensitive soul by nature. That might have hurt him late last season, when he dug himself a hole after accusing some teammates of selfishness, but it probably helped him in the off-season as he dedicated himself to climbing out and quieting the criticism.
“It was unfortunate,” Hibbert said Tuesday. “I know I could have played better. I take full responsibility for that. It's a new year and I have confidence in myself. I'm just going to go out and play extremely hard. I'm not going to say last year didn't happen. I realize it did. I'll work through it and get better.”
One major step toward improvement was to work with Abdul-Jabbar, owner of six NBA Most Valuable Player awards and 19 All-Star game appearances. The two worked together on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse practice court late in July. When it concluded on July 26, Hibbert shared his enthusiasm with the world via an afternoon tweet: “Just finished the best week ever!”
Hibbert also watched ninja movies with Abdul-Jabbar and dined with Abdul-Jabbar and team president Larry Bird at a downtown restaurant one evening.
“I'm like a fly on the wall, hearing some of the stuff they talked about,” he said. “Realizing (Abdul-Jabbar) didn't have chartered flights until about two years after he retired. They were going back and forth talking about a lot of things. I learned a lot.”
More relevantly, Jabbar convinced Hibbert of the importance of agility, lower body strength and becoming more explosive around the basket by crouching lower.
“He's big into martial arts and balance,” Hibbert said. “That's one of the things he saw with me – positioning and making sure I don't fall and making sure I worked to create space and own that space.”
Not that Pacers coaches hadn't been preaching the same thing.
“Kareem said his career didn't really take off until he learned how to get low, and Roy took that to heart,” said Frank Vogel, who watched all of Hibbert's workouts with Abdul-Jabbar. “It's something we've always worked on him with, but to hear Kareem say that it changed his career resonates with Roy a little more.”
Hibbert flashed his new approach toward the end of Tuesday's workout, after media members were allowed in to watch, taking an entry pass from David West, ducking to gather himself in front of the basket, and dunking the ball. He plans to make more a habit of that in the upcoming season, rather than allowing himself to be pushed away from the basket and throwing up awkward shots.
“We looked at the analytics, and when I'm three or four feet off the block, that's when my percentages go down,” he said.
Establishing a beachhead near the basket, and doing something once he's there, will require more strength and agility. Hibbert said he has dropped about 12 pounds since last season, from 290 to 278, and focused more of his weight training on his lower body. The plan is to be quicker around the basket, and therefore more of a scoring threat – primarily by dunking the ball.
“He looks a little lighter and bouncier,” Vogel said. “He had a good hop in his step in September.”
For that to continue into the Spring will require a collective effort, and will hinge on psychological as well as physical matters. Hibbert will need opportunities to show off whatever offensive improvements he has made, which seems a virtual certainty with Lance Stephenson and Paul George out of the offense. Those two combined for 28.3 field goal attempts last season, nearly as many as the other three starters combined to take (29.1). Stephenson and George were dynamic players who could get to the rim for easy shots, so it made sense to turn them loose. But their success came at the expense of Hibbert more than anyone.
This year, the Pacers will have to share the ball more to compete. And that will be just fine with Hibbert, a close friend of San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan and a fan of the pass-oriented style of play that carried the Spurs to the NBA championship last season.
“The mindset is to make sure everybody gets a piece of the pie and gets a chance to compete,” Hibbert said Monday.
Hibbert also has taken an example from Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah, who has become one of the NBA's best centers without relying on scoring. Noah averaged just 12.6 points last season, his career-high, but became an All-Star for the second time and won the Defensive Player of the Year award that many thought would go to Hibbert at the beginning of last season. Noah averaged career highs in rebounding (11.3), assists (5.4) and steals (1.2), and was never heard to complain about touches.
“As much as he gets under people's skin, he brings a lot of effort and I respect him for that,” Hibbert said. “I'm going to see if I can do that.”
Such is the irony of Hibbert's revised mindset. He'll try to care less about scoring, but will get more scoring opportunities. The kind that can be slammed through the basket, along with last season's worries.
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