INDIANAPOLIS — As his young teammate prepared for his first appearance in the NBA All-Star Game, Danny Granger offered some advice for Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert.
“Don’t expect to get too many touches,” Granger said with a smile. “Whoever gets the ball first is going to shoot it. That’s the All-Star Game. You’ve got to get rebounds if you want to get the ball. I don’t even know if they have post-ups in the All-Star Game. It’s just all jump shots, dunks and layups.”
Given the evolution of the game in general, you could say much the same about the NBA. But that’s fine with Hibbert, a happy anachronism, a proud throwback to the time when big men ruled the court.
Indiana’s 7-foot-2, 260-pound center just might be the most unlikely All-Star of the bunch, a self-made player lacking in gaudy statistics or signature moves. He isn’t a rim-rocking dunker like Orlando’s Dwight Howard. He isn’t a bruising physical presence like Memphis’ Marc Gasol. He isn’t an intimidating shot-blocker like Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka.
In the eyes of some experts, like TNT’s Charles Barkley, Hibbert wasn’t even the most deserving All-Star on the Pacers’ roster. When the reserves for the Eastern and Western Conference teams were announced, Barkley said he thought Granger, a former All-Star and the team’s leading scorer, was the Pacer who most belonged.
Put aside what Hibbert is not, and one can see what he is: the anchor of one of the most surprising teams in the NBA.
“He’s had a great year. He deserves it,” Pacers president Larry Bird said. “If you look around, he’s really the second-best center in the Eastern Conference.”
“Nobody deserves it more,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Nobody works harder than him or cares more about his team or his game than Roy, and he’s really improved. He’s become a legitimate center in this league and he’s very deserving.”
Bird, who put together the deal to acquire Hibbert (who was drafted No. 17 out of Georgetown by Toronto) on draft night in 2008 in a package that sent Jermaine O’Neal to the Raptors, did not suspect he was adding a future All-Star to the roster at the time.
It did not take Bird long to begin envisioning the possibilities.
“I watched Roy from the time he came to Georgetown as a freshman there and you would never have thought he’d make as much progress as he has,” Bird said. “But after we got Roy here that first year and watched him in the summer, you knew he had the potential to get better each day because of the work he was putting into it.
“There’s no secrets about this game. If you put hard work in and you dedicate yourself to it, you’re going to get better. But to say he’d be an All-Star, a couple of years ago maybe no, but after last year I thought he had the potential to continue to get better and have a chance.”
His numbers (13.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.7 blocked shots and .501 field-goal percentage through Feb. 20) reflect consistent growth. A player who often was pushed around in his first couple of seasons has become much more the aggressor this year.
He added muscle in the weight room during the offseason and also worked with San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, hoping to pick up some low-post techniques. In Hibbert’s mind, however, the main factor in his growth has been the addition of veteran power forward David West.
“He’s probably the biggest reason I’m an All-Star this year,” Hibbert said. “Hands-down, he’s helped my career so much offensively and defensively. We communicate really well on the court. To tell you the truth, we don’t even have to talk.
“We just know each other really well. As weird as that sounds, we can just look at each other and we know what to do. He’s helped me out so much. No disrespect to Tyler (Hansbrough) or Josh McRoberts or Jeff Foster, but since D-West got here my game has elevated so much. He’s the reason why I’m an All-Star, hands-down.”
West appreciates the credit but does not wholly agree. He believes the reason Hibbert is an All-Star is Hibbert himself. Easily the hardest worker on a hard-working team, Hibbert has been relentless in developing his physical and mental profile.
Hibbert knew one of the biggest concerns scouts had about his game was that he wasn’t athletic enough to keep pace in the NBA game, so he spent much of his first two seasons working on agility, including a stint with a mixed martial arts trainer to help his footwork and balance.
When Hibbert found himself struggling to establish and maintain post position last season, he headed to the weight room to bulk up. He still lifts after every home game.
“I think he demands that he be accounted for,” West said. “He just makes the game a lot easier for other people whether or not he’s getting the ball and scoring, just being around the basket. He’s got a great IQ, so it’s been easy to kind of figure out certain things with him and how we can best work together. That’s probably been the easiest part of this transition for me, the ability to kind of blend in to what he’s doing and figure out ways to make us successful.
“He’s very rarely out of position. That goes to his IQ. He’s a very smart big guy with a good touch. Sometimes we don’t have to speak, he understands kind of where to get to before he needs to be there — just making the game easier.”
Hibbert also has become more at peace with himself. Because he is his harshest critic, Hibbert often blanched at negative comments from former Pacers coach Jim O’Brien, and it affected his confidence on the court.
When Vogel took over midway through last season, he not only established a pattern of positive reinforcement, he changed the offensive philosophy. No longer would the Pacers shoot 3-pointers first and ask questions later. Vogel turned things inside-out, putting much greater responsibility on Hibbert.
The big man has thrived in that environment. He has learned to channel his emotions, to avoid the ups and downs that plagued his first couple of seasons. Hibbert has been stunningly consistent; in the Pacers’ first 31 games he recorded 13 double-doubles and scored in double figures 26 times. In three of the games when he fell short, he scored nine.
“He’s getting older. He’s getting more mature,” Vogel said. “He’s comfortable in his role and he knows that the ups and downs are not going to change his role. I think because of that you can react to things less.
“Learning how to defend with discipline is probably his greatest area of growth over the last couple of years, defending with the discipline to not foul. And I really think the added muscle he put on this last summer is helping him to play a more physical brand of basketball.”
A good-natured and fun-loving young man, Hibbert has made only token efforts to mask his excitement about the All-Star selection. He has not taken the honor as some sort of signal he has arrived individually but, rather, that the team has returned to its place of respect among contenders in the East.
And if they don’t want to throw him the ball Sunday night in Orlando, fine.
“I’ll rebound. I’ll play the one, two, three and four. I’ve done it before,” he said with a grin. “I’ll just tell Deron Williams I’ll take the ball down court. I’m going to enjoy it. I know these types of games aren’t geared towards big guys. I’m just going to soak it all in and try to learn some secrets from all the superstars.”
Pssssst. Here’s one you might not have heard yet: Roy Hibbert belongs.