Slumping Hibbert still a candidate for most improved

When Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert entered the league two years ago, it wasn’t a stretch to say that his game resembled that of draft bust David Harrison.

Despite recent shooting struggles, Roy Hibbert is having a career-best season.

No doubt a disturbing thought for the Pacers faithful.

The two big men’s rookie stats were eerily similar. As a first-year player in 2004-05, Harrison posted averages of 6.1 points and 3.1 rebounds while playing 17.7 minutes per game. He also couldn’t stay on the floor – picking up 3.1 fouls per contest in those somewhat limited minutes.

Compare those to Hibbert’s rookie numbers in 2008-09 (7.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.1 fouls per game in roughly the same playing time) and it’s easy to slam the Pacers’ front office for whiffing on two first-round draft picks.

Not so fast.

While the drug-troubled Harrison’s career went up in flames – literally – Hibbert recovered from his less than impressive rookie campaign to emerge as one of the top young centers in the NBA.

His climb began last year in his second season, when the depth chart above him suddenly became less crowded.

Rasho Nesterovic took his talents to Toronto. Jeff Foster stopped being Jeff Foster, and transformed into “Did Not Play – Sore Back.”

That opened the door for Hibbert, who improved in nearly every statistical category.

Hibbert practically lived in the gym over the summer leading up to this season, training with Hall of Fame center Bill Walton and reportedly dropping 23 pounds.

It paid off.

He put up absurd numbers in the three October games (18.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.7 bpg) and continued strong in November (15.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.9 bpg). The NBA’s Most Improved Player award seemed to be his to lose.

But then the wheels fell off in December.

Hibbert has gone from feared interior presence to the invisible man. He has just three double-doubles this month, and is currently stuck in a shooting slump in which he’s gone a combined 9 of 36 (25 percent) from the field over the last three games.

Despite the offensive nosedive, Hibbert has found a way to foul less (2.9 per game in December). His numbers a little more than a third of the way through the season (14.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.0 bpg) are also still career-highs – by far.

If the season ended today (I hate it when writers use that setup, but oh well) Hibbert would obviously be a few spots down the list when talking about the league’s most improved players.

Minnesota’s Michael Beasley – a player Miami couldn’t jettison fast enough in preparation for the Summer of LeBron – has been a beast for the Timberwolves, leading the team in scoring (21.9 ppg) while shooting 47 percent from the field.

Other surprise performers probably ranking higher than Hibbert at this point would be New York’s Raymond Felton (12.1 ppg, 5.6 apg in 2009-10 to 18.3 ppg, 9.2 apg this season) and Golden State’s Dorell Wright (7.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg in 2009-10 to 15.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg this season).

The good news for Hibbert is that he hasn’t seen his minutes decrease during his sub-par December. With 54 regular season games remaining and the possibility of a playoff run (I’ll save that for another column), Hibbert should have plenty of opportunities to regain his early-season form.

One of his teammates is proof of that. Danny Granger – the 2008-09 Most Improved Player – didn’t become the favorite for the award until having a red-hot January.

It’s possible Hibbert can do the same.

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