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Ewing, Mutombo, Mourning ... Hibbert.
It's been 15 years since Georgetown featured an old-school center with the size and skills to dominate at any level. But if the quantum developmental leap exhibited thus far this season by 7-foot-2 sophomore Roy Hibbert is merely the first of several growth spurts, Hibbert is well on his way to returning high-profile, low-post prestige to Big Man U.
"One day, Roy is going to be one of the best players in the world," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III earlier this week. "One day, he's going to have a chance to be in the class of some of the guys who have come through here. It's our job to take steps to expedite that 'one day.'"
The recent annals of Hoyas hoops are loaded with players who had hopes of joining the school's great triumvirate. Othella Harrington and Mike Sweetney had the skills but lacked the size. Jahidi White, Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje and Wesley Wilson had the size but respectively lacked the skills, drive and commitment.
Hibbert, though still raw in many respects, seems to have the total package, the tantalizing unteachable holy trinity of size (7-2, 283 pounds), touch (he shoots better than 80 percent from the free-throw line) and desire (nobody on the roster worked harder in the offseason).
The size comes from his mother, a 6-2 native of Trinidad with a set of sisters who run even taller. Perhaps the touch comes from his Jamaican father, who grew up in the same neighborhood in Kingston as Patrick Ewing. The desire is pure Roy. And according to the 19-year-old sophomore from Adelphi, Md., this last crucial piece of the puzzle fell into place during an early morning run around the campus last summer.
"It's a funny story actually," said Hibbert, who averaged just 5.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 15.8 minutes as an awkward, foul-plagued freshman carrying a somewhat soft 270 pounds. "I'm running my loop -- it's like a two- or three-mile loop around campus. And as I'm running, somebody in a car yells, 'Roy, run faster. You know you want to play this year.' It sounds made up, but I swear that happened, just some random guy. And I said, 'You know, I'm going to push myself.' So, I started waking up early in the morning before class and running and lifting. It was like a little thing just clicked, and that was it."
The results of that commitment have been almost as outrageous as its inspiration.
Hibbert's early morning runs improved his speed and endurance, making him far less foul prone this season. And his work in the weight room alongside lifting partners Jeff Green and Tyler Crawford, reputedly the team's drill sergeant of desire, allowed him to drastically reduce his body fat while he added 15 pounds of pure muscle.
Consequently, he showed up for preseason practice looking like a different player, allowing Thompson and assistant coach Robert Burke to accelerate his technical training.
"We have a plan for what Roy has to do," said Thompson, whose specialty at Princeton was developing big men. "Last year, we were mostly working on running and catching, athletic basics, because you're talking about a guy who when he walked in the door here should have been redshirted, but we didn't have that luxury.
"This year, we could focus more on specifics. The hook shot, the Mikan drill, that's the foundation. That's the bread and butter. It's going to come back to that no matter where he gets the ball, whether it's two feet or four feet from the basket. He has to be able to stretch and make that shot. That has to be like breathing to him."
Well before the squad's opener at Navy (Nov. 18), Hibbert's teammates were already raving about his improvement. Senior captain Ashanti Cook dubbed Hibbert's transformation "shocking" at the team's preseason media day.
And Hibbert didn't disappoint, heralding his emergence with a career- and game-high 20-point performance in the victory over the Mids to establish what has become the team's early season theme: Hibbert has brought the big back to Big Man U.
Through eight games this season, Hibbert is leading the Hoyas (6-2) in scoring (13.9 points), field goal percentage (57.8) and blocked shots (2.6) and is second on the team in rebounding (6.8) and foul shooting (80.4).
His improved conditioning, positioning and timing have made him a daunting force on the defensive end. And his footwork and presence on the offensive end seem to improve on a daily basis. His hook shot is developing into a devastating weapon, no doubt courtesy of the 200 reps Burke personally supervises during each practice.
"I make sure that goes in every single time, so coach Burke doesn't get mad at me," said Hibbert. "I've watched some tapes of Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], and I was like, 'That's unstoppable.' Many times, he did it going away from the basket, and I have to get to the point where I can do that."
Don't hold your breath waiting for that incomparable level of offensive mastery, but Hibbert's huge leap in production this season hints at potential offensive grandeur. His single-season jump in point production (+8.8) is among the highest in the program's recent history, cozied among the leaps made by Victor Page (+10.2 in 1997-98), Craig Shelton (+9.2 in 1977-78) and Shernard Long (+8.6 in 1997-98).
In contrast to the eruptions of Page and Long, however, Hibbert's emergence comes on a team which returned its primary offensive weapons in Green, Cook and senior forward Brandon Bowman. Remarkably, Hibbert's expanded role seems to have only improved team chemistry.
"I love it, because I'm not always in the spotlight," said Green, a 6-9 sophomore who has seen his point production drop (from last season's 13.1 points to 10.0) but benefits by shifting his game to its future NBA home on the wing. "I still play low post when Roy goes out, but I don't have to do everything down low. ... I don't have to score a lot for us to win -- nobody does. Me, Roy, Brandon, Ashanti -- we can all share the load. So, he's taken a lot of pressure off us."
That pressure will undoubtedly increase after the Hoyas clean up their nonconference slate next week against Colgate and likely UTEP before moving into Big East play. Hibbert has been dominant against the Navys, James Madisons and Savannah States of the world, but he's yet to prove he can be a consistent force against major-conference competition.
In the Hoyas' three games against power leagues this season, Hibbert was brilliant in a victory at Oregon (18 points, 10 rebounds) but posted his two worst outings of the season in losses to Vanderbilt (six points, no rebounds) and Illinois (four points, seven rebounds).
"Let's not make the big fella out to be something he's not," said Thompson, who gushes about Hibbert but also stresses the difference between potential and the present. "Roy is improved, greatly improved, but he's got a long way to go, and that's relative to both what we need and what he can be. He's moving in the right direction. Does he have some tools and God-given ability? Yes. Does he have the aptitude and commitment? Yes. But the stars still need to align."
You better believe some NBA wise men have both eyes on the skies above the Hilltop.
By Brahma Chellaney
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