The news that Dwight Howard was done for the season — that his months-long charade with the Orlando Magic had ended not with a trade or a firing, but a surgery — filtered into the Indiana Pacers’ locker room around 10 p.m. on April 19.
The Pacers had just finished a routine home win over the Milwaukee Bucks, a game made interesting only by Milwaukee reserve Larry Sanders’s late-game attempt to fight the entire Pacers roster. In doing so, Indiana had clinched the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and, if the standings held, a first-round series against an Orlando team devoid of its lone star.
“Man, I hope we play Orlando!” someone shouted. The others then started speculating as to whom the Magic’s starting center might be. One player suggested the thick but earthbound Glen Davis. Another wondered if it would be 3-point specialist Ryan Anderson. “No, no,” said Roy Hibbert, the man who would be the most direct beneficiary of Howard’s injury. “They’ve been using that dude from Kentucky. What’s his name?” Daniel Orton, I told him. “Yeah,” he said. “Orton.”
The fact that the 7-foot-2 center could look forward to a first-round matchup against either a 6-9 career backup, a 6-10 jump shooter, or someone he knew only as “that dude from Kentucky” is just one of the reasons why, these days, it’s good to be Roy Hibbert. A true center in a post-center league, the sturdy and fundamentally sound Hibbert spent most nights this season matched up against moonlighting power forwards and big but useless stiffs. In averaging 13 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks per game, Hibbert earned his first All-Star appearance and became (arguably) the best player on a team with the fifth-best record in the NBA. And when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer, Hibbert will likely command a high price not only for his skill set’s quality, but for its scarcity.
“He doesn’t get near enough credit for the player he is,” an opposing scout told me at the Milwaukee game. “He’s clearly one of the most skilled centers in the league.” Hibbert’s success is partly the result of being in the right league at the right time, but it’s also the result of a late-developing but now-obsessive work ethic, which he’s channeled toward improving his game and tinkering with his body to maximize his lone natural gift: height.
About two hours before that game against the Bucks, Hibbert walked onto the floor in a near-empty Bankers Life Fieldhouse and began the game-day routine required to keep a 7-foot-2 body running. A young and athletic team, the Pacers need less of the daily body maintenance you’ll find among older squads, whose players have creakier joints. But while teammates hoisted jumpers and joked during impromptu games of one-on-one, Hibbert wandered out to half court alone.
He began by walking across the floor with varied pace and gait. He then moved on to leg lunges and toe touches and other stretches that are simple to most but, just a few years ago, would have been nearly impossible for Hibbert. Ten minutes passed before he finally picked up a basketball. He moved to the post and started with hook shots — five from the left block, five from the right block, and five from the middle — before assistant coach Brian Shaw stepped in to defend, fouling Hibbert on every touch with no fear of repercussions.
The routine was rote and methodical, designed to maintain Hibbert’s greatest gift, his large body, while fine-tuning skills that he long struggled to develop. Hibbert has earned his place among the league’s best bigs, but he’s only done so by overcoming an almost complete lack of natural athleticism and strength. Quite simply, Hibbert is good because he is tall — and because, unlike so many other 7-foot-plus “projects” who populate D-League rosters and NBA benches, Hibbert decided to do whatever it took to become something more than a stiff who never developed.
Once the game began, Hibbert showed the challenges he poses to smaller opposition. Though limited by foul trouble, he scored efficiently against Drew Gooden (6-foot-10) and Luc Mbah a Moute (6-foot-8) in the post. Early in the first quarter, Hibbert caught the ball in the paint and immediately went up with an off-the-glass hook shot to his right. He often tries to start posting up underneath the basket, so that even if he gets pushed away from the hoop, he can still receive entry passes on the block. Later, in a similar spot, he kept the ball high and then went up and under for a layup. In the second half, Hibbert kept going to work. Against Gooden, he got the ball on the left block, took one dribble to his left, turned his shoulders in sync with his hips, and lofted a hook shot well over Gooden’s challenging arm. Gooden watched the ball splash through the net, helpless. “Goddammit!” he shouted.
There are moments, however rare, when Hibbert seems unstoppable. His size can be overwhelming, his decision-making impeccable, and his movements ruthlessly efficient. But then spells pass when he barely touches the ball. This is largely a result of the way the Pacers’ roster has been built. After the infamous 2004 “Malice at the Palace” brawl, Indiana dismantled its team and landed in NBA purgatory — stuck between the league’s legitimate contenders and its lottery-winning bottom-feeders. So the Pacers rebuilt with mid-level draft picks, collecting pieces like Danny Granger (no. 17 pick, 2005), Tyler Hansbrough (no. 13 pick, 2009), and Paul George (no. 10 pick, 2010). The result is a group with plenty of talent but no true stars.
The team has been criticized for lacking a “go-to” scorer, and coach Frank Vogel has countered by saying that his go-to guy is whichever guy happens to be open.1 While it’s conceivable that Indiana could contend for a title without an elite offensive player, no team has done so since the 2003-04 Pistons. And among the Pacers’ three All-Stars (Granger was selected in 2009 and David West made it in 2008 and 2009), Hibbert has the most room to improve.
This year’s presumptive no. 1 draft pick, Anthony Davis, famously underwent a growth spurt after beginning his high school career as a guard. While Davis’s growth may have been particularly dramatic and late, his developmental pattern is common among elite big men. Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, and Tim Duncan all went through a similar process. Hibbert, however, was different. As a third-grader, he was forced to play in a league with older kids because of his size.2 By age 12, he stood 6-foot-8. “I regret that I never learned how to play on the perimeter,” he says. “If I have a kid who’s big like me, I want him to learn those perimeter skills.”
“For the guys who grow late, things like having the right footwork, being able to handle the ball and move around — it all comes so easy,” says Dwayne Bryant, Hibbert’s high school coach. “Roy was a body. He could rebound, he could block shots. He wanted to get the ball on the perimeter, but he didn’t have to.”
In high school, Hibbert focused on PlayStation, not basketball. He dominated EA Sports’s NCAA March Madness games, using a personally created digital version of himself. “I could do it all,” he says. “Dunks from the free throw line, hitting 3s, running the point, everything.” But once he stepped away from the controller and onto the court, things changed.
“To put it bluntly,” former Georgetown assistant Ronnie Thompson told the Washington Post, “Roy was awful.” Hibbert fit a classic archetype: the big, space-eating stiff. Seven-foot-2 but skinny and sedentary, he performed well against high school competition but did little to indicate he might have an NBA future. And at the time, he was fine with that, content to eschew weightlifting sessions and individual workouts for more time in the basement, where he was just another kid with a PlayStation, an imagination, and time to kill.
Cut to 2004, Hibbert’s first year at Georgetown. In an early fall workout, Hibbert lay prostrate in the weight room, watched by strength coach Mike Hill. He’d hit the ground to bang out a few push-ups, but a problem soon became clear: Hibbert couldn’t do one. So while women’s soccer and lacrosse players looked on, Hill straddled the freshman big man, reached down, and grabbed him by the sides, pulling him up and pushing him down while Hibbert struggled to pitch in. “It was humiliating,” Hibbert says. “All these girls are watching — they can do push-ups but I can’t.” Not only could Hibbert not do a push-up, he couldn’t bend his knees enough to do a single squat, even without holding weights.
That’s not all. “He couldn’t run,” says Boston Celtics forward Jeff Green, who was part of the same Georgetown recruiting class as Hibbert.3 “He was pigeon-toed, and he had these size 18 shoes, so he was just tripping over himself trying to get up and down the court.” (Says Hill: “It was more of a waddle than a run.”) But in the half court, Green says, “he was a load.” Big, with good defensive timing and a soft offensive touch, Hibbert was capable of scoring when he got the ball down low. But this was the Big East, a league stacked with elite athletes. As long as Hibbert was incapable of passing a middle school fitness test, he wouldn’t have an impact.
Hibbert played about 16 minutes per game as a freshman, and coach John Thompson III let him know that without significant improvement, he’d end up stuck on the bench. “They brought a recruit in on a visit — another big guy,” Hibbert says. “We played in an open gym, and he just kicked my ass all the way up and down the court. I couldn’t do anything against him, and I knew he was coming to take my spot.”
Big men are often stereotyped as guys who play basketball more out of obligation than a genuine love for the sport. Allen Iverson played because he was a ruthless, maniacal competitor, the thinking goes, while Shawn Bradley played because it would have been a waste if he hadn’t. Hibbert has always enjoyed the sport, he says, but his decision to obsess over his own development was largely inspired by wounded pride. “At first I thought he was another guy who played because he was big and he wanted to go to school and it was an easy thing for him to do,” says Green. “But over time he showed that he was passionate about it and wanted to be good at it. For him, it was always about wanting to prove people wrong.”
“That was a challenge to my pride,” Hibbert says of Thompson’s threats to bury him on the bench. “I knew that what I’d been doing wasn’t enough.” So the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, Hibbert started working to transform his body and expand his skill set.
How important is height?
Obviously, in basketball, it matters a great deal. But how significant is height by itself, when not paired with girth (think Shaq) or athleticism (Dwight Howard) or agility and vision (Dirk Nowitzki)? What if you’re just tall — and that’s it?
Now, it would be disingenuous to suggest that when Hibbert set out to improve his game, he was bereft of natural talent. He has always had good depth perception and dexterous fingers, both of which give him a soft touch around the basket. He’s also naturally intelligent, allowing him to digest and apply coaches’ lessons more quickly than others. And even the part of his personality that caused him to respond to criticism with hard work — the passion that lay dormant for so long — is at least partly due to genetics.
But in Hibbert, height is something of an isolated variable, untethered from the other talents that usually propel a player to the NBA, such as leaping ability, quickness, and natural strength. When he arrived at Georgetown, Hibbert was — by any measuring stick — a below-average athlete. But because the advantage of height is so great and players of Hibbert’s size are so rare, he didn’t need elite athleticism to excel.
Citing data from the Centers for Disease Control, Sports Illustrated estimated that there are fewer than 70 7-footers between the ages of 20 and 40 in the United States. Seventy 7-footers; 30 starting NBA centers. If you’re Nate Robinson’s height, you need to be an exceptional athlete to make the league. If you’re Hibbert’s, you just have to be pretty good. “You see a lot of 6-9 and 6-10 centers around the league, but that’s not because coaches want to move toward smaller and quicker guys,” the Eastern Conference scout said during the Bucks game. “There just aren’t many quality guys with legit center size right now.”
So during the offseason between Hibbert’s freshman and sophomore years, he met Hill in the weight room every day. First, they worked on speed and agility, using jump ropes, Hula-Hoops, and tennis balls. Then they moved on to strength training, until Hibbert could do one push-up, and then 10 and then 20 and then more. “It took some time,” Hill says, “but once he realized, ‘Holy shit! I really can be good at this stuff,’ then it just clicked.” Hibbert started peppering Hill with questions — How’s my form? What does my body fat look like? What else can I do to target this muscle? — until, Hill says, “It got to the point where it felt like he was challenging me as much or more than I was challenging him.”
Hibbert made a leap that offseason, and then continued with steady improvement in the years that followed, and by the time he graduated, Hibbert was a two-time All–Big East player and a focal point on a Final Four team. Hibbert had built a skill set that highlighted his strengths and masked his deficiencies. In doing so, he became a coveted NBA prospect. And although he still faced questions about his athleticism and agility, Hibbert believed, according to the Washington Times, that he could eventually become a “serviceable starting center.”
Not a lofty goal, but at the time, it seemed a fair challenge.
Since entering the league, Hibbert has continued fine-tuning, looking for new ways to maximize his natural gifts by working on the physical (he does mixed martial arts to improve agility), the mental (he performs relaxation exercises to keep himself from “spazzing out” on the court), and the technical (he worked this past offseason on transitioning from a sprint to a defensive stance more quickly) aspects of his game.
“He’s always asking, ‘How can I do this better?’” says teammate David West. Hibbert pays Justin Zormelo, a private scout, to send him edited film and detailed reports on himself and the center he’s matched up against before every game. “The guys who work for the team are great, but they have to focus on the whole team,” Hibbert says. “It’s good to get something more personal.”
After inconsistent play under previous coach Jim O’Brien, for whom Hibbert lost weight in an attempt to play more up-tempo, he has thrived under first-year coach Frank Vogel. Hibbert gained weight and strength in the offseason, and Vogel designs his offensive and defensive sets to keep Hibbert near the basket. And even though Hibbert has lamented his lack of perimeter development, West says, “Roy embraces his size. Too many big guys want to be guards. He knows who he is.”
That established identity has advantages. In Game 1 against the Magic, Hibbert exploited Orlando’s lack of size, assuming defensive control of the paint. Hibbert blocked nine shots, grabbed 13 rebounds, and bullied his opponents in the post. His blocks were less likely to be weakside swats than man-on-man asphyxiations, with Hibbert using two hands to commandeer possession of the ball and muscle Magic players to the ground. In one two-minute stretch, he made a hook shot over Ryan Anderson, turned away a Hedo Turkoglu drive to the basket, smothered Glen Davis on a pick-and-roll, and then tossed in a putback while falling to the ground. On every play, Hibbert showed skills he lacked just a few years ago. The ability to score consistently in the post, to hang with perimeter players and effectively recover on ball screens, to maintain the body control necessary to score while being pushed to the ground — none of these were in Hibbert’s arsenal during his early days at Georgetown.
The Pacers blew Game 1, which isn’t all that surprising, since they shot 34.5 percent and made several critical mistakes in the final minutes of an 81-77 loss. But in Game 2, a Pacers win, Hibbert struggled to keep up with the Orlando frontcourt’s perimeter-oriented play. The Magic pulled Hibbert farther and farther from the basket by running perimeter pick-and-rolls. Davis also made several successful drives to the basket against Hibbert, using a quickness advantage that was useless when he tried to post up the bigger man. Hibbert’s offensive touches were scattered and often ineffective, as Davis frustrated him with his quickness and strength.
Hibbert has yet to assert his will offensively in this series, and with the Pacers’ varied scoring options, he may not need to. He has, however, dominated the glass, with 13 rebounds in each game. It’s typical Hibbert: All-Star-as-role-player, changing his focus depending on opponents’ matchups and teammates’ performances.
“Look at all he can do at that size,” Granger said after the April game against the Bucks. “He can pass from the post, he can rebound and block shots, and when we need him to, he has that ability to score down low. It’s about doing whatever we need.”
Back in February, Hibbert and Granger stood together on the Pacers’ practice court, discussing the upcoming announcement of the All-Star reserves. Hibbert told Granger he thought the swingman had a good chance to make the team, but with the glut of Eastern Conference perimeter talent, Granger was less sure.
“Then we started thinking, Who are they going to put at center?” Granger said. “It’s Dwight, and then who else? Unless they just put a power forward at center, it was going to be Roy.”
Granger was right. When the rosters were announced, Hibbert’s name was on the list. As unfathomable as it once seemed, Hibbert had earned a place among the game’s elite. Perhaps he never became the 3-bombing, power-dunking, all-99-everything player he created long ago in his video game. But, Granger says, “As long as he’s a center, he can be an All-Star every year. It has to be him. There’s just nobody else.” In today’s game, that counts for a lot. In these playoffs and the years to come, we’ll find out just how much.
Jordan Conn wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist. On Twitter, he’s @jordanconn.