Hibbert’s emergence helping propel Pacers

Four names are read to Roy Hibbert: Joe Alexander, Anthony Randolph, Robin Lopez, Marreese Speights.

“Those are the guys, yeah,” Hibbert said.

If the Indiana center ever needs motivation, all he needs to do is look at a list of players taken ahead of him in the 2008 NBA Draft. There were 16 guys selected before Hibbert went No. 17 to Toronto and soon was traded to the Pacers in a deal in which Jermaine O’Neal went to the Raptors.

Alexander, Randolph, Lopez and Speights were just some of the players taken before Hibbert that teams no doubt regret to this day. The names do nothing but fuel Hibbert to get better.

“I always thought I was overlooked because I was a four-year guy,” said Hibbert, a Georgetown graduate who stuck around until he was a senior, a rarity these days for a first-round pick. “My whole motto was work, work, work, and fortunately for me it paid off… I may have slipped in the draft but I’m having the last laugh now.”

Hibbert sure is. On Thursday night, he scored 19 points, grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds and blocked five shots to lead the Pacers to a 94-75 win over Miami and a 2-1 lead in an East semifinal.

It was yet another step in the development of the 7-foot-2 Hibbert. He’s slowly gotten better each season, and last February played in his first All-Star Game. Now, he’s starring in the playoffs.

But the modest Hibbert hardly is getting a big head. He had to be told he had scored his most points ever in a playoff game.

“They said I had 19 points,” said Hibbert, averaging 12.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in the playoffs, including 14.7, 13.3 and 3.0 in the three games against the Heat. “I seriously can’t remember all of them because I was more focused on the defense and they just seemed to come. My teammates found me.”

As for the rebounds and the blocked shots, those mean more to Hibbert. This guy just loves playing defense.

“I was never thinking All-Star,” Hibbert said of whether he reached a goal by playing in that game last February in Orlando. “I wanted to be on the All-Defensive team.”

When Hibbert was drafted, though, that honor looked unlikely to many. Hibbert was seen by many as a long-term project when nice words were used and as a stiff when they weren’t.

Of course, all that did was motivate him even more.

“When I was a rookie, they saw me as a backup and I’d never amount to much as the 17th pick,” Hibbert said of his critics. “When I made the All-Star Game, they said I was the first All-Star not to play in the rookie game (taking into consideration players who entered the NBA since 1993-94, when the game began). That’s a tribute to my hard work, so I’m going to keep working.”

With all of that in mind, when free agency comes around this summer, Hibbert hardly will get the same treatment he got on draft night. As a restricted free agent, he’s expected to command a contract that could be in the range of the maximum.

Hibbert, whose averages of 12.8 points and 8.8 rebounds this season have steadily risen since he put up 7.1 and 3.4 as a rookie, sure sounds as if he wants to return to Indiana. But even if another team throws down a huge offer sheet, the Pacers would have the option to match it.

“I love Indiana,” Hibbert said when asked about his free agency. “They took a chance on me when they traded Jermaine O’Neal and a couple of other guys to get me with the 17th pick. This is the place that I feel I’m very loyal to.”

So, unless something strange happens, figure on Hibbert being back with the Pacers. For now, though, there’s plenty of important immediate things to worry about for Hibbert and Indiana, which is in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

When Heat big man Chris Bosh went down in Game 1 due to an abdominal strain, the thinking by many was Hibbert would be dominant in Game 2 against a Miami team left without much of an inside game. While Hibbert had a modest eight points and 11 rebounds in that game, he sure took charge in Game 3.

“He’s cleaning the glass,” said Heat forward LeBron James. “He had a big night. Big guy… He definitely made a big impact in the game.”

James doesn’t recall anything too specific about three months ago being Hibbert’s All-Star teammate, saying he was “very quiet.” But don’t think Hibbert wasn’t trying to soak in everything he could that weekend, when he totaled just three points and three rebounds in the game.

“When he came back from the All-Star Game, Roy was telling me how he would watch the guys who had been there, the older guys who had been around for multiple All-Star games,” Pacers forward Lou Amundson said. “He wanted to see how they approached it… He was trying to get any information he could to get an edge.”

Figure on Hibbert, 25, showing up for plenty more All-Star games. For starters, there just aren’t many centers these days.

After Orlando’s Dwight Howard and the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum, Hibbert has a chance to eventually contend for being the third-best pivot man in the league. Heat big man Udonis Haslem doesn’t disagree, saying, “he could work himself into that” spot.

But rather than compare Hibbert to any current NBA centers, perhaps it’s better to look to the past. In this era of so few big men who want to play with their backs to the basket, Hibbert is a throwback. He had no problem with the comparison when it was suggested he’s a bit Nate Thurmond-like.

“Everybody wants to be guards now, everybody wants to bring the ball up the court, everybody wants to take long jump shots,” Hibbert said of today’s players. “If they want to do that, that’s fine. That makes things easier for me …. I’m an old-school guy. Certain guys want to shoot, I’m more jump hooks in the paint.”

It sure helped Hibbert’s fundamentals that he spent four years at Georgetown, where Hibbert said he learned a work ethic. Hibbert admits that after he grew to his current height as a sophomore in high school he “didn’t really put the effort in.”

Playing for Maryland’s Georgetown Prep, Hibbert usually went against centers in his league nearly a foot shorter, and that didn’t help him develop needed skills.

Hibbert also didn’t keep his body in shape. When he was at Georgetown, he said he was nicknamed “BMW” for “Body Made Wrong.”

Now, Hibbert is a rock-solid 275 pounds. He has hired a chef so that he eats properly, and he brings a big bag on the road that contains all the various nutritional supplements he takes.

Hibbert could have left after taking Georgetown to the Final Four as a junior in 2007 and perhaps been a higher pick, but he didn’t feel he was ready. So he stuck around to earn his degree in government and hone his skills.

“He’s got some size and some talent but his desire to improve himself is probably his greatest attribute,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel, an assistant when Hibbert joined the Pacers. “He works harder on his body probably than any player that I’ve been around in terms of understanding what he needs to do… He’s got a will and a desire to improve that most players I’ve been around don’t have.”

Vogel believes Hibbert could be getting “20 and 10 if he was on another team,” but said he sacrifices stats because the Pacers are so team oriented. But Vogel had no problem with 19 and 18 on Thursday.

“That’s one of the best games I’ve ever seen him play,” Vogel said.

The way Hibbert played against the Heat, he sure would look good in red, white and blue. But Hibbert said he’s doesn’t ever expect to be with Team USA because he played in a qualifying tournament in 2010 for Jamaica, the nation where his father was born.

After Howard and Portland big man LaMarcus Aldridge were knocked out of Olympic consideration due to recent injuries, there were some feelers from USA Basketball about Hibbert possibly being named to the Olympic pool. But Hibbert said he was unsuccessful in dealings with FIBA, the governing body of international basketball, to be allowed to switch countries and now considers it a dead issue.

“They had a rule that we didn’t know about when I played with Team Jamaica that I can’t play for Team USA again,” Hibbert said. “We had international lawyers looking at it and they say it’s very doubtful… If I knew that two years ago, I wouldn’t have played for Team Jamaica, but whoever thought Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge would be hurt at my position?”

Hibbert figures his days of playing for Jamaica are over because he’d rather work individually on his game during summers. Or, in the case of last summer, work with guys like San Antonio legend Tim Duncan.

“More than just basketball stuff, we sat down and talked and I saw how he goes about his business and his calm demeanor,” Hibbert said of what he learned from Duncan. “He doesn’t get too high or get too low. So I model my game after him. He’s texted me after every game. I’m appreciative, and he’s somebody that looks out for me.”

No word on whether Hibbert has received any texts lately from Alexander, Randolph, Lopez or Speights.

Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter@christomasson