MINNEAPOLIS — It shouldn’t have been him. He shouldn’t have been the one sinking 3-point shots, scoring off steals and tallying 13 points in the fourth quarter.
Jimmer Fredette was not supposed to be the player responsible for the Kings’ comeback. Ask anyone. He had been on the bench for two recent games. He’s not athletic. He’s not fast. His game doesn’t translate to the NBA. He’s a bust.
But Fredette is 22 years old. He has played only 509 minutes in the NBA. He most likely has practiced with his team fewer than 50 times.
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It seems a bit early to be making those pronouncements about the No. 10 pick in the 2011 NBA draft, the winner of every National Player of the Year award in the 2010-11 college season, the reigning top scorer in NCAA men’s basketball.
For Fredette, the NBA has been a harsh reality, a far cry from the screaming fans at BYU’s Marriott Center and the “Jimmer-mania” that defined college basketball just a year ago. But on Tuesday night in Minneapolis, things looked a little different for the rookie point guard. Not only was he the catalyst behind the Kings’ comeback — albeit a failed one — but he also took the court against Derrick Williams, the second overall pick last summer, a player with a bright NBA future.
And here’s the thing: For all those supposedly damning flaws, Fredette outplayed Williams.
In fact, Fredette has averaged 22.1 minutes and 8.7 points per game this season to Williams’ 18.3 and 7.6. Yet no one is accusing Williams of ineptitude, of a lack of athleticism. That’s partially because, from afar, Fredette appears diminutive, his skinny legs and pulled-up socks screaming, “I don’t belong here.” But it’s also because Williams’ career has to this point followed a more traditional arc.
The worst, Williams has faced are accusations that he might not be making the most of his opportunities or capitalizing on his minutes. But he gets to use the excuses that Fredette is denied: He’s a rookie; he’s learning two positions. Give him time.
Williams, who faced Fredette and BYU during his time at the University of Arizona, said that he thinks Fredette’s game will translate to the NBA over time. He compared Fredette to J.J. Redick, who has found more success than his critics ever predicted playing in Orlando.
“That’s to be kind of tough,” Williams said of the criticism Fredette is facing. “I think for a lot of rookies, you don’t really get different opportunities, especially with the rookie transition. We got a week of training camp. With Jimmer . . . and I’m not just saying Jimmer, because I needed it, it really did hurt. I think a lot of people are being too critical.”
Williams didn’t arrive in Minnesota having been the biggest celebrity in college basketball for the past year. He was popular, sure, but a casual NBA fan might still have known little about the forward when he donned his Timberwolves hat on draft night in New York.
“In college, I had a pretty big fan base,” Williams said. “But I don’t think that anybody in the nation had a fan base like Jimmer. His college stadium . . .every game, it was packed. People just wanted to see him play.”
Sacramento coach Keith Smart agreed that the precedent Fredette set in college has hurt him in the NBA, through no fault of his own. Fredette arrived in Sacramento with many expectations attached to his name, but in the end, he’s still a rookie who suffered from an abbreviated training camp. The core of his game is his shooting ability, and in college he was able to take as many as 30 shots per game. He could miss 10 and still end the night with 40 points. That’s a luxury few NBA players and even fewer rookies will ever have.
“Jimmer’s going to be fine,” Smart said. “He’s going to be OK in the NBA.”
Fredette will be fine, as will Williams. Right now, Williams is nothing more than a wild-card type of player, Smart said, whose game has yet to come to fruition. But he’s allowed to struggle, to negotiate his role on the Timberwolves. He’s just another highly touted rookie, and he was never a cultural phenomenon like Fredette.
Minnesota coach Rick Adelman pointed out that Williams is hardly the first No. 2 pick to enter the NBA without earning playing time right away. But there aren’t fans in every road stadium wearing Williams’ jersey and chanting his name. There aren’t piles of magazines from last spring collecting dust in doctors’ offices and on coffee tables with Williams’ picture on the cover. So, though he was a higher overall pick, the expectations aren’t as pressing. The bar hasn’t been set for Williams as it has for Fredette. And right now, that’s a good thing for the Timberwolves’ rookie.
Right now, at least. Fredette proved on Tuesday night that his situation can fuel him. He was benched in two full games last week, the first time that had happened to him since high school, and it hurt. But instead of wallowing, he read the Timberwolves’ defense and took advantage of it. Though his comeback wasn’t enough for the win, it was enough to remind the crowd that Fredette isn’t a bust.