At Georgetown, Roy Hibbert played in a Princeton offense so it’s not like he wasn’t a good passer even before he ever entered the NBA. And in his first two years in the league, he showed flashes of brilliance, finding cutters and often making good decisions with the ball under duress.
He was also often sloppy with the rock, however. Especially in the high post, way too many of Roy’s touches were wasted with him just holding the ball and letting the shot-clock dwindle before making a bailout swing pass that did little more than force a guard to re-set the offense.
This season has been very different.
His assist percentage (the amount of teammate field goals a player assists on while he is on the court) so far this year is 19.3%. For reference, only 12 centers in history have finished a season with an assist percentage of more than 19%. Only four centers have done so since 2000 (Shaquille O’Neal, Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac and Brad Miller). And no center has finished above 19% since Miller did so for Sacramento in 2005-06.
(If you open it up to players of any position who are 6’10” and over — thereby including great passers like Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Toni Kukoc — there are still only 22 tall guys that have ever maintained an assist percentage better than 19.0% for a whole season. KG has done it an amazing 10 times — with a high of 27.1%.)
He is performing well by other metrics as well. Per-36 minutes this season, for example, Roy ranks fifth in assists among players 6’10 and over — ahead of guys like Pau, KG and Dirk.
How is it that Roy has become so much more adept at passing the ball so quickly?
Like all his improvements this year, his slimmed-down physique and new-found agility are the primary drivers. It’s not that MMA training this summer gave him better court vision, but better stamina and greater quickness have slowed down the game for him, and he now just sees everything that happens on offense better — and sooner.
Also, he just understands the offense better and is more comfortable receiving the ball at the elbow. The trepidation and indecision that was all too familiar last season is now rarely seen. He has a plan from the catch and does something useful with the ball much more quickly. If a guy gets open, he usually gets the ball from Hibbert. This, naturally, incentives movement and helps prevent stagnation. Instead of looking like a QB hurried by a blitz, he stands there calmly, pivoting and scanning the court as if he is checking down receivers and looking for a seam to throw. He is also better at executing the hand-off to a teammate — usually Danny Granger — who curls off his shoulder towards the foul line.
Sport Illustrated’s Ian Thompson recently spoke with Hibbert about his passing. And Roy credits working with Bill Walton this summer as a big reason that his technical proficiency has improved.
Few NBA offenses run as much motion around the post as the surprising 10-10 Pacers, but then few teams have a center who can pass as well as 7-foot-2 Hibbert. It’s no coincidence that Hibbert spent three days last summer working with Bill Walton, the Hall of Famer who was the finest passing center of modern times.
“[Bill] had a drill from the high post,” said Hibbert, “and he was like, ‘Just make passes between your legs, behind your back.’ They were silly passes to the guards while they were moving, and he was like, ‘Don’t be afraid to make those passes.
“We watched tape on Hakeem [Olajuwon], we watched Pau Gasol and David Robinson and how they were able to see guys [cutting] and they didn’t think twice about making those passes. It just came natural to them, and Bill said I have that [ability] so I should do it.”
Perhaps even more importantly, Walton helped instill confidence in Hibbert.
Since last season, Hibbert has … developed confidence that is on display during the pregame introductions, when he raises both hands high at the sound of his name, whether at home or away. That last bit comes from Walton.
“He said you have to love yourself,” said Hibbert. “He was like, ‘You have to be all about yourself!’ I told him, ‘Basically what you’re telling me is swag.’ Come out like this.”
He raised both arms.
“All eyes on me,” said Hibbert. “I do it now because of Bill, that’s why I come out like that.”
I’m not sure that Bill Walton knows what “swag” is, and I’m almost certain he hasn’t ever listened to to Tupac’s multi-platinum-selling double-album All Eyez on Me, but nevertheless, it seems as though the universal language of beautiful passing was not lost in translation.
Here’s a gorgeous pass from Roy Hibbert to Darren Collison from Friday’s win over Charlotte. I don’t believe he could have done this last year. Note the Walton-inspired, All Eyez on Me arms at the end.