Selfishness on a basketball court most frequently manifests itself on offense, where a scorer’s tunnel-vision can lead to gunning or a teammate can seem more like a rival if he looks you off a couple of times down the floor.
Defensively, it shows with gambling too often for steals, roaming far and wide in search of blocks or rebounds or just plain failing to exert oneself. Indiana center Roy Hibbert does none of that. So if he wants to exhibit a little selfishness in terms of individual acclaim, the Pacers have no gripes. His individual goal to be named 2013-14 NBA Defensive Player of the Year would almost certainly lead to, or at least be a big part of, team success.
“Now he’s very vocal about wanting that Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s going out and playing like he wants it,” Pacers guard Paul George said. “In years past, he played like a Defensive Player of the Year but it wasn’t, I don’t think, his goal. Now he’s approaching it as a goal.”
The 7-foot-2 Hibbert, who will turn 27 on Dec. 11, has brought it up in interviews unsolicited. He has posted about it on Twitter. All the chatter serves as motivation, publicly challenging himself the way a smoker might announce and track his quitting. There’s nothing covetous about his stated goals, and definitely nothing new in his game.
“I’m doing the exact same things I was doing last year,” Hibbert said after Indiana’s game last weekend in Chicago. “I worked on putting on a little bit more size. But I swear, I didn’t really work on defense at all this summer. This is how I’ve always been playing.”
Only better. Hibbert, through the first 10 games, was averaging 4.6 blocks, a career high (his previous was 2.6 last season). And the obstacle he presents in the paint has been a mental block as well as a physical one for opposing shooters; they’re converting only 35 percent of their attempts at the rim, according to NBA.com/Stats. Compare that to Dwight Howard‘s early-season rate of 47.7 percent or DeAndre Jordan‘s 63 percent.
“He’s gotten a little better each year in that regard, but he’s been doing close to what he’s doing now,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “The league’s just recognized it.
“I thought he should have won [DPOY] last year. There were a lot of deserving guys out there, but in my mind, he’s the best rim protector in the game. We were the best defensive team last year. So far we’re the best defensive team this year. And he’s the anchor of our defense.”
Hibbert’s commitment to his craft — working with the obvious advantage of his length but not all that much more when he got to Indianapolis — has been widely chronicled. And respected.
“You have to give him a lot of credit,” said coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls’ connoisseur of defense. “He was a highly skilled player in college at Georgetown. But he did a great job with his body — he changed his body when he got into the league, and that takes a serious commitment. Each year he’s gotten better. And he’s embraced his role with that team. He’s not worried about his offense. He does his role — he stars in his role.”
New Pacers forward Chris Copeland has peeked behind the curtain at Hibbert’s game.
“I didn’t know, playing against him, how good he was,” Copeland said. “Actually seeing him every day — you don’t really get to know a guy until you practice with him and see his work ethic and things he does behind the scenes — he’s phenomenal. People who think he’s good already, he’s going to surprise a lot of them.
“I can’t speak for other teams but I think he affects their game plans. And he’s playing both sides of the ball — offensively, he’s a load as well. You’ve got to throw him up there with the best in the game.”
While Hibbert is busy opening eyes around the league, he already has done that among the NBA’s officials. Maybe the biggest change this season is how consistent the referees have been in adjudicating Hibbert’s work around the basket when met by attacking ballhandlers. He has become the gold standard in the “law of verticality” (as his block on Carmelo Anthony in the 2013 East semis demonstrated) that spells the difference between foul trouble and interior intimidation.
Hibbert started regularly getting those calls last season, especially in the playoffs, and it has continued.
“I mean, they’re used to it now,” Hibbert said. “But also, I tell ’em, ‘If I’m not straight up, if I’m turning, call a foul.’ So I can learn. And they’ve been doing that. When I go straight up, they’ve been giving me the benefit of the doubt. When I don’t, I’ve got to learn somehow.”
Hibbert’s shot-blocking rate, if it lasts, would make him the first NBA defender to average 4.6 since Manute Bol (4.96) in 1985-86. Hakeem Olajuwon averaged 4.59 four years after that. Dikembe Mutombo (4.49 in 1995-96) was the most recent player to average more than 4.0. Regardless of the number, Hibbert sounds proud of how he collects them without warping his or his team’s game.
“There are a lot of guys who lead the league in shot-blocking, but they are ‘help’ shot blockers,” the big man said. “So they just roam around and block shots and grab offensive rebounds. Me, I take pride in guarding [Carlos] Boozer, guarding [Joakim] Noah 1-on-1 in the post. Guarding whoever it is. So I feel like I can do both: help-side, shot-blocking defense and on-the-ball defense. Some guys aren’t great on the ball. I want to be able to do both.”
As much as the Pacers value Hibbert’s inside work, he appreciates the offensive options around him — George’s burgeoning game, David West‘s mid-range pops — that keep him fresh at the other end. “I can focus all my energy on defense and maybe still get 10 points just off offensive rebounds or little duck-ins,” he said. “I know my place. I’m not going to be one of those 18-20 points-a-game guys. I want to be a 15-10, 13-10, be solid. And get some blocks.”
A trophy, too. It’s not a chant that trips lightly off the tongue — “DPOY! DPOY!” — when he steps to the foul line. But Hibbert will settle for hearing it once, at season’s end.