Sweat beaded Roy Hibbert’s warmup t-shirt long before his Charlotte Hornets’ game against the New York Knicks began Friday night. It poured down his face as he put up hook shots, one after another, just a few feet from the hoop, under the watchful gaze of Hornets assistant Patrick Ewing.
Hibbert represents something new for Ewing, whose career as an assistant coach has evolved into a kind of center whisperer. He’s worked with elite talents like Yao Ming and Dwight Howard, turning them into the very best in the game. He’s taken veterans like Al Jefferson and maximized him into a All-NBA Third Team performer. He made Bismack Biyombo into a key contributor on a Toronto Raptors team that reached the NBA Finals, utilizing the work Biyombo credited to Ewing.
But Hibbert is something else: a once-feared star with a mid-career dip that led him to Charlotte on a one-year, $5 million deal, an astonishingly low outlay for a center with a pair of All-Star Game appearances, a pair of campaigns that ended with his Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals and anchoring a defense atop the entire league in defensive efficiency in both seasons.
Nor is Hibbert ancient by NBA standards, having just turned 30 in December. In an Eastern Conference where the defensive limitations of all the top contenders—yes, even LeBron’s Cavs—have created an opening for a team capable of getting stops, a Hibbert-powered Charlotte defense riding that skill set, along with new all star Kemba Walker’s next-level play deep into the playoffs wouldn’t be all that surprising.
But Hibbert hasn’t provided that level of defense so far, and the Hornets cannot thrive without it. He’s struggled with knee problems that have left his lateral movement compromised. The Hornets were third in the league in defensive efficiency through their first 23 games, according to head coach Steve Clifford.
Over their next eighteen contests, they slipped to 23rd. Hibbert is far more effective on the defensive end this season than he was last year with the Lakers—he’s collected nearly as many Defensive Win Shares in 39 games in Charlotte as he did in 81 games in Los Angeles—but he is not, as of yet, the rim protector he was at his best in Indiana.
“Listen, I think if he gets healthy—which we need—for us to be the team that I envisioned, he was a big part of our plan,” Clifford said of Hibbert. “He’s done a great job, Pat’s done great with him. Listen—he hasn’t been healthy. There haven’t been many games when you could look out there and say, ‘He can move tonight.’ That’s the story of his season so far.”
It hasn’t prevented Hibbert from putting in the work, however. This Hornets team needs him on the offensive end as well. So he and Ewing, without fail, find themselves out on the floor pregame, making sure that by the time the game begins, whatever chances Hibbert gets to score will feel natural.
“I haven’t been getting a lot of shot attempts,” Hibbert said as we walked through the tunnel back toward the Hornets’ locker room, following the pregame session. “If I do, it’s one, two or three a game. So I just try to be as efficient as possible. [So the work with Patrick] is about getting in the flow. A lot of my shots come on duck-ins, so a lot of it is about touch. Hooks around the rim, touches around the rim. And I just go from there, to post moves on the block, and then I add in the duck-ins at the end, because it’s about touch at that point.”
It’s been working, the results alternately tantalizing and frustrating to Hibbert and the coaching staff. He played 31 minutes in his Charlotte debut, looking every bit like the player they need him to be–15 points on nine shots, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3 assists.
Thanks to the knee injury, he played just four minutes, 29 seconds in the next game, missed the five after that. He’s only played more than 20 minutes in a game six times all season, more than 30 just once—in the opener.
But when he has played, well, he’s putting up some of the best offensive numbers of his career.
Hibbert is a career 46.5 percent shooter from the field. His past four seasons, he hasn’t reached 45 percent. This season, entering Friday night’s game, he was at 54.4 percent.
Two principle reasons for his newfound offensive force can be found in his post-up game and work as the roll man in the pick-and-roll. Last season in Los Angeles, Hibbert averaged .673 points per possession on 162 post-up opportunities, according to Synergy, ranking him in the bottom fifth in the league. Entering Friday, Hibbert was averaging 1.036 points per possession on 55 post-ups, among the top sixth in the league.
According to both Ewing and Hibbert, all it took was a natural re-embracing of the player he once was. Yet Ewing has him shooting better than he ever has.
“He’s always been a very good face-up shooter,” Ewing said, sitting on the Hornets’ bench prior to the game, also sweating through the purple warmup he’d soon trade for a dapper bowtie and jacket. “We try to take some turnaround shots, looks in the post. The hooks are something he brought, something he had before he came here. We just incorporated that.”
Hibbert acknowledged that he isn’t the first, second or third option on this Charlotte team, and he’s fine with that. Accordingly, his first shot didn’t come until four minutes left in the first quarter, a hook shot following a move Ewing himself had performed countless times on the same Garden floor, this time over Willy Hernangomez. It was one of only two attempts Hibber would get in the half.
By then, Hibbert had gotten up scores of shots already thanks to his pregame work. Ewing moved with him from spot to spot on the floor, never losing focus on his latest pupil. Even when Ewing’s eyes were elsewhere, greeting longtime MSG employees, or chatting animatedly with old teammates like John Starks or Herb Williams, he’d flick passes Hibbert’s way, critiquing what he saw needed to be correcting, absorbed in the work.
“You know, you’ve been around the game a long time, you develop senses,” Ewing said, laughing, of his ability to no-look pass to Hibbert mid-conversation.
Ewing has made no secret of his desire to get a head coaching gig, and it takes a special kind of obliviousness to think a player of his greatness who graduated from Georgetown with a degree in fine arts and has put in a decade-and-a-half of distinguished work as an assistant coach isn’t worthy of a head job. He’s tired of talking about it, but he’s ready for the call, and he has no bigger supporter than Clifford.
“Yao Ming’s best years were working with Patrick,” Clifford said. “Dwight Howard, by far, best years were working with Patrick. And Al Jefferson, who’s had a great career, best years were working with Patrick. So I think if I was a young player, and I wanted someone working with me, it would be Patrick. Now that said, he’s a lot more than a big man coach. He’s just a good coach. Kemba goes to Patrick a lot. But it’s a big reason why Roy came, and it’s a big plus for our organization, our staff.”
Hibbert reiterated this, though he pointed out the chance to play with Walker mattered a great deal, too. For now, Hibbert is the starting center, with Cody Zeller, yet another big man whose game has developed thanks in part to work with Ewing, on the shelf with a quad injury.
For the Hornets to truly make a run at an Eastern Conference title, they’ll need Hibbert to be the Pacers-era player, a true interior counterpart to Walker. It’s a level of play he’s reached before, and the Hornets don’t need him to find it for five years, or even one—just a few dozen games in April, May and, if it all goes right, June.
He’ll need to find a way to do it while he navigates knee issues as his professional odometer passes 18,000 minutes including playoffs, which happened earlier this month. He’s got someone on his side who knows a little bit about how to do that—Ewing reached the NBA Finals for the first time after age 30, well after he passed 20,000 career minutes.
“He’s got a long way to go, and it’s a long year,” Ewing said. “With his knees feeling better, we expect big things out of him. He’s had some big games this year, and ultimately, when we make the playoffs, we’ll need him to shine.”