Roy Hibbert interview: Two-time All-Star talks about the evolution of big men in the NBA

Two-time All-Star Roy Hibbert talks about how the traditional NBA big-man, around whom he modelled his game, has become extinct while centres have evolved to counter the three-point wave.

Amit Kamath March 13, 2021 19:59:04 IST
Roy Hibbert interview: Two-time All-Star talks about the evolution of big men in the NBA

File image of Roy Hibbert (right) playing for the Indiana Pacers against the Milwaukee Bucks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in 2014. Image courtesy: NBAE via Getty Images

Sometime in the 2014-15 season, one of the coaches at Indiana Pacers pulled Roy Hibbert aside for a chat. He wanted to talk analytics with Hibbert, who, by then, had been with the Pacers since 2008 as a traditional centre, a position also referred to as the five-man (the traditional jersey number for centres) or a big-man. The NBA, at the time, was in the early throes of its data analytics revolution, which was nudging the league’s big man into extinction.

“That was the time when Golden State Warriors were really popping (shots from outside the arc). Things were changing in the league. The analytics said that the one-on-one post-up shots and the (consequent) one-on-one block is one of the worst shots in basketball. So my post touches started going down as the analytics were saying that shooting more and more threes were the way to win games. It was winning championships for certain teams,” recollected Hibbert during a media interaction with Indian journalists on Saturday. “I wish I could shoot like Kristaps Porzingis or was as athletic as him. It’s a different breed (of big men).”

The wave of three-pointers unleashed by the Golden State Warriors took them to the league title in 2015, and then again in 2017 and 2018, with players like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson at the heart of the shooting juggernaut, spearheaded by coach Steve Kerr.

But, more importantly, what it did was stretch the floor, which in turn, made it necessary for the power forwards and centres—positions on the basketball court which required the tallest players—to venture out from under the post to guard these smaller, swifter, and niftier shooters.

“The traditional centre that I modelled my game around is going that way (at the risk of getting extinct). Centres that stand in the paint are going extinct. I saw that coming,” said Hibbert, who is a two-time All-Star. “But that’s not a bad thing. Those back-to-the-basket centres are not as seeked after (by teams) as opposed to a floor-spacing five-man or a number five like Joker (Nikola Jokic), who can stretch the floor by playing away from the basket for the Denver Nuggets. The big-man’s role is evolving. At the same time, I like seeing how the new guys like Joel Embiid can score from inside and out and also facilitate.”

“I was just put under the basket and told to shoot jump hooks if needed, while everybody else in team would do the shooting (from mid- or long-range),” said Hibbert remembering his own youth basketball days, where he played for Georgetown. On Saturday, he hosted a live  clinic for youngsters in India via Zoom. “I have a son, who is three years old. But he’s as tall as a five-year-old. If he chooses to play basketball, I would tell the team’s coach that just because he’s the tallest don’t make him stay underneath the basket and just shoot jump hooks. He needs to be dribbling, shooting... he can’t just be a five-man!”

How the NBA’s evolution hurt Indian big-men

The evolution of the big man’s role on the court has also coincided with Indian players who have come within touching distance of playing in the NBA. At 7’2”, Satnam Singh was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks and assigned to their D League (as the G League was previously known) affiliate, the Texas Legends. Amjyot Singh, who is 6’8”, has had stints with two NBA G-League teams: first, he was drafted by OKC Blue in 2017 ― where he spent a season and a half ― and he was later picked by Wisconsin Herd. Palpreet Singh (6’9”) was also close to playing in the G-League.

The newest prospect from India, Princepal Singh (6’10’), can play both as a power forward and as a centre. The 20-year-old just ended his first season in the NBA G-League with the Ignite team featuring some of the top youngsters who will eligible for the upcoming NBA Draft. Despite his promise, Princepal played just 28 minutes over 16 games.

Ignite’s coach, Brian Shaw, mentioned that it was difficult to hand Princepal more minutes because the G-League was a league of speedy guards.

“As you have seen throughout this season, this is not a league for big men. This is a guards’ league,” Shaw had told Firstpost. “Most of the teams we have here have at least four guys on the floor between 6’3” and 6’6”. The biggest guy on the floor a lot of the times is 6’7”. Maybe 6’8”. They’re all fast. They can all shoot from the outside. They can all handle the ball. That’s not something that Prince is accustomed to facing. So it was hard to put him into a lot of the games.”

Big men from abroad

Another trend in the NBA that’s been apparent is the proliferation of the big-men from foreign shores. Some of the top centres in the business currently are foreigners, be it Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Dallas Mavericks’ Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia), Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert (France), Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro). Add tall power forwards like Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece) and Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid (Cameroon) to the list and a pattern starts to emerge.

While Hibbert credited Team USA, popularly known as the Dream Team, at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 with popularising the game around the world and bringing some of the best centres into the league like the German Dirk Nowitzki, he agreed that given the way the NBA evolved into a league where three-pointers were the preferred weapon for many successful teams like the Warriors and the Houston Rockets, colleges with decent basketball programs too changed their tactics to incorporate more three-point shooting to attract the best players.

“I’m sure college team coaches were thinking that they wanted the best players in the country to come to their school so they needed to teach an NBA-style program. So colleges probably adjusted too. There was a shift there. They needed bigs who could run, space the floor,” said Hibbert, who is the son of Caribbean immigrants.

Last season, Hibbert was on the coaching staff of Philadelphia 76ers where he says he would advice young players coming into the league to “space the floor and shoot”. “You have to shoot like Steph Curry. I used to tell young guys that they had to be a threat from the outside too.”

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