CHICAGO – Roy Hibbert might have to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award two years in a row.
That’s what it might take for Hibbert, the Indiana Pacers center who has made what many observers see as significant progress in his third pro season, to elicit the same sort of reaction close to home. For now, to hear Pacers coach Jim O’Brien tell it Monday, Hibbert ain’t done nothin’ yet.
“I think that Roy would say – and I certainly share this belief – I don’t think he’s having a very good season,” O’Brien said to a surprised cluster of reporters before the Pacers’ game against the Bulls at United Center. “I think that he can play at a much, much higher level right away than he’s doing right now.”
Not having a good season? At 14.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.91 blocks in 29.8 minutes, Hibbert appears to be having a breakthrough season across the board. He earned praise for his offseason workouts, which lowered his body fat, and he has accepted responsibility as one of Indiana’s team leaders. The team’s own Web site touts him as a Most Improved candidate and, in the season’s first week, so did this guy.
But O’Brien was like The Great Santini, all tough love and apparently unimpressed, on this night.
“I don’t think he’s being the facilitator of our offense that I think he’s going to become; I think he’s a great passer,” O’Brien said. “I think he can be a much better rebounder. And my expectations probably aren’t as high as Roy’s expectations. So even though he could be mentioned as Most Improved, I think he has a long way to go and he has a long way to go this year.”
That might have been O’Brien’s way of keeping Hibbert focused and hungry with another 60 games to go. It might have been payback for the shaky performance the former Georgetown center had at Atlanta Saturday, when he managed just six points, eight rebounds and two assists in a 97-83 defeat.
This is the same coach, remember, who gives up compliments about young point guard Darren Collison as eagerly as most of us give up bicuspids. O’Brien did have a few kind words about Hibbert’s activity this season at both ends, but he even followed up the good stuff with some backhanded praise.
“The good thing about Roy is, he was drafted by a team that was not a very good basketball team and needed him to play his first two years a lot of minutes,” O’Brien said. “If he slips another 10 spots, he’s playing his rookie year and his second year on a contender and he doesn’t get the repetitions that he got with us.”
UPDATE: After scoring six points on 2-of-7 shooting with three rebounds, no assists, no blocks and two turnovers in 20 minutes of the Pacers’ 92-73 loss to the Bulls, Hibbert called O’Brien’s bet and raised him some. “I’m playing like crap now,” he told Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star. “It’s been like that since we got back from out West. … I have to get my head back. Mentally I’m not there. I’ve got to figure something out.”
Hibbert talked to the NBA TV crew before Monday’s loss. See what he had to say: