Goal Tending

by April 25, 2012
roy hibbert

roy hibbert

Originally published in SLAM 158

by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky

There once was a teenager. He had the height of a young giant, so he played basketball, but he was awkward and gangly. Sure, he could dunk some and block a few shots, but his movements were clumsy and he didn’t have a feel for the game. Despite those Joker-sized question marks, a local DI coach saw enough upside to offer the Queens-born, DMV-bred teenager a scholarship.

“I saw three things in him,” Craig Esherick, Georgetown’s head coach from 1999 to 2004, says. “He was very tall, he had really good hands and his parents did a really good job of instilling the attitude in him that, ‘I can always learn something and I can always get better.’ Those things were a big start right off the bat.”

Most others—“some who will not admit it now,” Esherick, now a professor at George Mason, chuckles—questioned the coach’s assessment. Patrick Ewing Jr, the tall teen’s AAU-adversary-turned-Georgetown-teammate counts himself among those who doubted.

“I remember seeing him at an AAU game when he was 15,” says Ewing Jr, currently a member of the D-League’s Iowa Energy. “It was right after he committed to Georgetown and everyone thought I was going to Georgetown, so they were like, ‘He’s going to be your teammate.’ I was like, Who? That big, tall, kid there? Then, the first play of the game when we played him, I dunked on him. I was like, Man, this kid’s not going to Georgetown—he’s horrible.”

Ten or so years after that dunk, after scouting reports and recruiting services scoffed at him, the man—now 25—is an All-Star center in the NBA.

Hibbert’s coming of age began in the latter stages of his high school career. It’s difficult to say what the exact impetus for his improvement was, but it happened. “Everybody always says they want to be in the NBA,” Hibbert says of his ferocious appetite for improvement that was born in prep school. “I said, I want to be in the NBA, and I want to be a great player in it. I want to leave a legacy.”

Even with all of his preparation, the 7-2 center suffered growing pains during his freshman year (’04-05) at GTown. He started 17 of 32 games, but he struggled to stay on the court because of foul trouble and averaged only 5.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. Two good games to start his sophomore season—20 points and 7 boards, and 23 and 6—convinced Hibbert that the NBA was in his future.

It wasn’t until his junior season, though, that he convinced everyone else of that. That’s when, according to Ewing Jr, Hibbert “took it upon himself to destroy every center he played against.” That included Pitt’s Aaron Gray (whom he outscored 18-3 in the Big East Tournament) and Ohio State’s Greg Oden (whom he scored 19 points on in the Final Four).

Playing with confidence and a bloated bag full of skills—an underrated shooting touch; an ability to finish with either hand; keen ability to locate cutters in Coach Thompson III’s Princeton offense—Hibbert was ready for the NBA, and scouts agreed. The Jamaican-American wanted to stay for another year and graduate, though, and so he did.

That June, in ’08, after a good but not great senior season, after he saw his name slide down mock Draft boards because, “I’m not a sexy player,” Hibbert was taken by the Toronto Raptors with the 17th overall pick and immediately traded to the Indiana Pacers.

“I don’t know when he got drafted if anybody expected him to be an All-Star,” says long-time Pacers color analyst and former NBA player, Quinn Buckner. “They hoped he’d be a good, solid player—that’s what you hope when you get guys in that [range]. But success is always self-determined.” And Roy was determined to be a success.

The first few seasons of Hibbert’s stay in the League have mirrored his time as a Hoya. He struggled in his first season as a Pacer and stayed in Indiana that summer to refine his body and game. He played significantly better in his second season and stayed in Indiana again, this time with a focus on losing weight. He was even better in Year Three, and, due to the lockout, spent the summer working out his game in New York, in DC with the Hoyas and for another chunk of time with Tim Duncan.

All of that work—the word buzzes around Hibbert’s name like an aggressive hornet—has really paid dividends this season, where the Pacers have announced themselves as a legit threat in the East and Roy Hibbert has blossomed into an All-Star Sunday player. Now that he’s reached that status, quieting the bulletin-board material, it’s that pride that is going to keep propelling Roy forward.

“I don’t want to just be satisfied with what I’ve done up to this point,” says Hibbert, a cerebral and quirky guy who also enjoys acting and has a growing IMDB résumé. “I want to be mentioned as one of those great centers that Georgetown made. Those guys—Dikembe [Mutombo], Patrick and Alonzo [Mourning]—they were great in college and they were great in the League. That’s what makes them the Mount Rushmore of big men, and I want to be in that lineage.”