Scott Fowler

Once an imposing All-Star, center Roy Hibbert seeks to rebuild career with Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets center Roy Hibbert is surrounded during media day at the Spectrum Center on Monday. In July, Hibbert signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Hornets.
Charlotte Hornets center Roy Hibbert is surrounded during media day at the Spectrum Center on Monday. In July, Hibbert signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Hornets. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

He is healthy. He is 7-foot-2. He is 29, a two-time NBA All-Star and one of the few people in the world who can say they have shut down LeBron James -- repeatedly -- when LeBron drives to the basket.

So whatever happened to Roy Hibbert?

The Charlotte Hornets have made it their goal to find out this season. Hibbert joined up in July on a one-year contract, and in Charlotte he has become a special project for assistant coach Patrick Ewing.

"He's like an uncle," said Hibbert of Ewing -- the two share the same college (Georgetown) and the same position (center). "I've known him since I was 13. We always talked throughout my years in NBA and in college, and he was always giving me advice."

Ewing isn't about to stop, either. He believes he knows the main reason Hibbert has gone from imposing star to inconsistent afterthought.

"I think it's probably mostly mental," Ewing said of Hibbert. "I know everybody is talking about how the game has changed. I think he's kind of bought into that."

Hibbert was at his best several years ago when he was highly valued as a rim protector. In the 2012-13 Eastern Conference finals, Indiana took a Miami team with LeBron James in his prime to seven games before losing.

As ESPN once noted, LeBron shot 48.4 percent from the field in those seven games when Hibbert was on the court and 63.6 percent when he wasn't. When LeBron took shots contested by Hibbert in that series, King James missed two-thirds of the time.

But then the NBA really did change. Teams like Atlanta sometimes started five players who could all shoot 3-pointers, which neutralized Hibbert's effectiveness under the basket.

As Golden State increasingly became the model, the 3-point shot began to rule the NBA game. Hibbert can't shoot threes on the offensive end -- he averages less than one per season -- and he isn't quick enough to block them on defense. And unlike former Hornet Al Jefferson, who couldn't do those things either, Hibbert doesn’t have a reliable low-post scoring game to fall back on as an offensive player.

Gradually, even when he was in the game facing a more traditional center, Hibbert seemed to become almost invisible. His rebounding dropped. So did his confidence, which Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird noticed and commented on publicly.

Indiana phased him out. Bird basically gave Hibbert away to the Los Angeles Lakers if they would just absorb his $15.5-million contract for the 2015-16 season, which the Lakers did. The Lakers then promptly went 17-65 as Hibbert had the worst season of his career.

"I didn't play well," Hibbert said. "That's on me."

‘We believe in you’

The Hornets got Hibbert for less than a third of what he was paid last season -- he's on a one-year, $5-million deal. He and Cody Zeller will mostly man the center position for the Hornets, with Zeller likely starting but Hibbert playing significant minutes. Hibbert will give Charlotte something the Hornets have lacked since they let Bismack Biyombo walk in 2015 -- an imposing presence at the rim on defense.

But does that even still matter in today's NBA? The Hornets obviously think it does.

Said Ewing, a Basketball Hall of Famer who was one of the best big men to ever play the game: "One of the first things I told Roy when we signed him was 'Look, no more negative things about how the game has changed.' Forget that. Forget it!"

Ewing smiled.

"I may not have used those exact words, though," he said, leaving no doubt some of his initial speech to Hibbert wasn't suitable for a family newspaper.

But Ewing and the Hornets want to stress to Hibbert that he will be important in Charlotte, and that they need him. "We believe in you," Ewing said he told Hibbert. "We expect certain things from you. Just come out and play."

Those things include not only blocking and altering shots, but also scoring occasionally (Hibbert has averaged a respectable 10.4 points during his career) and passing the ball out of the high post.

"I don't see that he's lost anything physically," Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. "I think he's hungry to play well again."

The Hornets’ coaching staff has had some successful reclamation projects already. Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee were two of the most notable during the 48-win season of 2015-16. They also have had one spectacular failure before who was another castoff of Bird and the Pacers (the Lance Stephenson flameout).

So on which side of that line will Hibbert fall? For now, he is straddling it.

Hibbert, who has worked with a sports psychologist in the past, badly wants to regain his mojo in Charlotte and believes he can.

"I wanted to come into a winning situation," Hibbert said. "I play better in a winning situation."

‘The onus rests on me’

For Ewing, Hibbert's success or lack thereof could make a difference beyond just in terms of Hornets' losses and wins.

Ewing could be a very good NBA head coach at this very minute but hasn’t been given the opportunity, in part because the league often hires former point guards as head coaches and rarely hires big men. But if he can work wonders with Hibbert, who knows?

"Ultimately," Hibbert said, "the onus rests on me to go out there and play with effort and energy. I feel like this is the best situation for me to do that."

Said Ewing of Hibbert: "When he went into Georgetown, he wasn't very confident. But he worked his way into great shape and then he just took off. ...He had a great college career. He was having a great NBA career. And then he got sidetracked. He really can do this. But we have a long way to go." 

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