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Giant Steps

It can take a while for a young center to learn the pro game. Indiana's Roy Hibbert is finally hitting his stride

Young centers fall into two categories: the übertalented No. 1 picks such as Dwight Howard and Andrew Bogut whose potential to dominate is immediately apparent, and the lower draft choices who need extensive work to have even a chance to shine. Roy Hibbert? Put him in the latter group. The 17th selection in 2008 out of Georgetown, Hibbert is emerging as an All-Star candidate, averaging career highs in points (16.1), rebounds (9.6) and blocks (2.1) through Sunday. "Right now," says Hibbert, 23, "my swagger is on high."

That it has taken three years for Hibbert to break out is no surprise; it often takes young centers at least that long to see results. Why? Many have to first unlearn the techniques they learned in college. "The college and pro game for centers is like night and day," says Timberwolves assistant Dave Wohl. "There are not a lot of things that relate." For example: Most college post players are taught to catch entry passes with two hands, keeping their backs to the defender. NBA coaches teach one-handed catches, with the center's hip toward the defender, allowing him more options once he has the ball. "All the great post players are great at making that one-handed catch," says Wohl. "The catch dictates what you can do from that point on."

In college, elite centers encounter little turbulence as they set up on the low block. But when they get to the NBA and try to grind out good position, they can be overwhelmed by the strength of opposing big men, finding themselves pushed out to the three-point line. "A lot of guys don't understand what the low post is," says Indiana coach Jim O'Brien. "They think the post is just outside the lane; we think it's two or three feet inside it."

Trying to predict which centers will develop into solid pros is an inexact science. For every Hibbert, there is a David Harrison, who was drafted by the Pacers in 2004 and started just 33 games in his four-year career. It helps, of course, if the newbie is highly motivated. The 7'2" Hibbert dropped 23 pounds in the off-season—he's now 255—and trimmed his body fat to 10%. He did mixed martial arts training to improve his conditioning and has seen his stamina increase since he found a new way to treat his exercise-induced asthma. Hibbert studied video of his low-post touches from last season, learning how different players defended him, and worked on his defense with Hall of Fame center Bill Walton. "He is so much more agile," says O'Brien. "You could tell from the first day of camp that this guy had put in the work."

Are there other potential Hibberts out there? The Pistons' Greg Monroe, the Thunder's Byron Mullens and the Celtics' Semih Erden have the skills. The challenge, as Hibbert can attest, is to figure out how to use them.

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On 7-foot Andrea Bargnani of the Raptors, who was averaging 20.8 points at week's end: "He has made real strides. His outside shot is still his strength, but he's not forcing it—when defenders run at him, he's putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble. He didn't have a lot of confidence in that move early in his career. His post game has gotten better too. He's not overpowering anyone, but he is playing tougher and using a little hook shot more. The thing is that he will always be miscast as a center. He's a lousy rebounder and would be much more effective with a physical five playing alongside him. I'm not talking about Reggie Evans; I'm talking about a real center who takes the pressure off Bargnani to control the paint."



TIPPING POINT After two up-and-down seasons, Hibbert is nearly averaging a double double.