There’s obviously some confusion about who will win the MVP Award in 2010-11, which team from the West will still be asserting itself in the spring, or if Miami really does have it all together to the point that LeBron can finally win a Finals game. One year-end matter there seems to be very little confusion about, however, is Roy Hibbert winning the Most Improved Player Award. It’s already being talked about as a given, plus a large amount of pundits’ pre-season predictions nabbed the big Pacer from the start.
All of his “award numbers” (the only ones that are considered for awards) are up this year, plus Indiana is finally looking like a playoff team that could scare good teams for the first time in a while (they already have wins over LAL, Miami, and Denver). Hibbert’s stat line reads 14 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 3.0 apg, and 1.9 blocks. Going backwards in time, his season averages go 12 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.6 bpg and 7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 0.7 apg, and 1.1 bpg, so it’s clear how much those have improved. He’s rightfully gaining a reputation as one of the best passing bigs in the game, and it should be mentioned his statistical improvement from last year is taking place in only 4 more minutes per contest. He’s had some big games against some of the best big men, as well: Hibbert put a 18-15 double-double on Al Horford and the Hawks in mid-November, had a 19-10 against Dwight Howard in a close loss four days later, and only a week after that dropped a 24-12 on Gasol and the Lakers.
The major reason Hibbert’s going to win the MIP is that his stats have improved (how you win awards in the NBA), and the major reason that’s happened is that he works his tail off and takes well to being coached. Being a Big East guy, I saw a lot of Hibbert at Georgetown and had very little respect for his game. He was slow and plodding, smaller guys easily got around him for baskets or rebounds (never reached 7.0 rpg in any of his four college seasons), strong guys pushed him around in the paint, and he was seen as little more than a defensive-minded project center. Toronto nabbed him with the #17 selection in the 2008 Draft (8th overall PF or C taken), and he was promptly shipped off to Indy as part of the Jermaine O’Neal trade. I figured that was the end of him – another 7-feet-2 player whose career was always talked about in terms of potential.
The Pacers started poorly in 2008 and were out of the running by Christmas, so Coach Jim O’Brien decided to start the youngster for 42 games over the last two-thirds of the season. Hibbert still wasn’t playing much more than 15 minutes per, partly due to foul trouble and partly due to Jeff Foster putting together a pretty solid campaign, but he showed late in the season that he could handle a larger scoring and rebounding role. As you’d like to see from rookies, Hibbert’s best month was his last. In April, he averaged 12 points, 6 rebounds, 6 free throw attempts, and 1.6 blocks in only 21 minutes per.
Last year, the Pacers were still bad, but people knew who they were because they ran a lot (like Hibbert’s rookie year), placing 2nd in the league with 97.1 possessions per game. Not only that, the team was shooting a ridiculous amount of 3’s, especially for their sub-par percentage of completion. Despite a style of play that in no way fit Hibbert’s slowness afoot, he still showed a lot of progress. He was noticeably working harder on the defensive end, specifically by bending his knees more and not standing so upright all the time. This was obvious in the 2009 Orlando Summer League (where he was named the MVP), and the coaching and new attention to detail carried through into the regular season. By staying lower, his quickness and agility improved, helping his defensive slides, rebounding, and scoring around the rim. He proved to be a decent mid-range shooter and most people started noticing he was a great passer from the high or low post.
Hibbert has thankfully—and unlike so many other project players over the years—continued to work hard, and he’s really starting to shine. The 24-year-old is taking more shots per game, but he’s still hitting 49% of them (49.5% last year – not great, but acceptable from a D-minded player). His intensity and positioning on the defensive end have improved, and that’s increased his blocks a little bit and his defensive rebounds significantly (3.5 to 5.8 per game). His 16% Rebound% is the best on the Pacers and his 3.0 apg lead all NBA centers. Not only that, his 3.0-2.3 assist-turnover rate is great for a center and would actually be much better if his teammates didn’t shoot so many triples (24.3 per game – barely behind NY’s league-leading 24.6), consequently resulting in a poor team shooting percentage.
A lot of what’s helped Hibbert become a little more comfortable this year is O’Brien’s decision to slow his team down. Having placed 2nd and 3rd in pace the last two years, the Pacers are now 8th at 94.1 possessions per game. The team gets into their half-court sets more, which means opponents aren’t getting caught up in the sprinting game as much, which means Hibbert is set up and ready to influence plays at both ends more of the time. This is one of the major reasons that Indy is 11-13 after a disastrous 32-50 record last season, have a few big wins under their belts, and is sitting at #7 in the East right now.
As he continues to listen and learn and improve, more NBA fans will start to realize what the Pacers have in the middle. And at least for right now, they have the NBA’s Most Improved Player.