NBA

Can Hasheem Thabeet Salvage NBA Career?

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Hasheem Thabeet isn’t currently on an NBA roster. In fact, it’s been over two years since Thabeet was in the league.

hasheemthabeetinside1The 29-year-old’s last NBA stint was with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2013-14 season, when he played in 23 contests and averaged 1.2 points, 1.7 rebounds and .4 blocks in 8.3 minutes per game.

It’s actually been over a year since Thabeet was on any professional basketball roster. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, who was selected ahead of James Harden, Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan among others, most recently suited up for the Grand Rapids Drive of the NBA D-League during the 2014-15 season. He fared much better there, averaging 8.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 22.2 minutes. Among all D-League players, he ranked third in total blocks (117), fourth in Defensive Rating (101.3) and fifth in block percentage (8.7 percent).

However, despite producing, Thabeet didn’t get called up by an NBA team.

“I was kind of shocked I didn’t get called up, but it was a situation that I couldn’t control,” Thabeet told Basketball Insiders. “What I could control was being consistent, continuing to work hard and enjoying myself while I was there. It was great to get an opportunity to compete. I have fun being out on the court and letting my presence be felt, trying to dominate on the defensive end. I wanted to show that I can defend at any cost. With the systems now, I won’t be out there trying to be the best scorer or anything; there are other players whose job it is to do that. I’m finding ways to impact the game.”

For the 2015-16 season, Thabeet could’ve played in the D-League again or signed a lucrative deal overseas. He could take either of those routes right now as the 2016-17 season gets underway. But in recent months, Thabeet has instead decided to work on his game in private and go all-in on salvaging his NBA career.

To do this, he enlisted the help of famed trainer Frank Matrisciano and former NBA executive Milt Newton. He is doing two-a-days and watching film with them in San Francisco, determined to re-join an NBA roster and produce at a high level on basketball’s biggest stage.

“The goal is to make it back to the NBA, so I’ll do whatever it is going to take for me to get accepted by a team,” Thabeet said. “Whatever it takes for me to get back, I’ll do it. The goal is to focus on the NBA right now and I feel I can actually say from my heart that I have worked hard enough this summer to stay over here [rather than go overseas].”

Matrisciano, who earned the nickname “Hell’s Trainer” due to his rigorous workouts, has been Thabeet’s physical trainer. He has worked with the center to reshape his body as well as improve his strength and conditioning. Prior to working with Thabeet, Matrisciano worked with NBA players like Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph and Gilbert Arenas while also training NFL players, Navy SEALs and triathletes.

“I didn’t know Hasheem and I always give people an opportunity,” Matrisciano told Basketball Insiders. “The stuff that I was told about him was that he was not into basketball, that he was lazy, etc. I met him when he came out here and we had a lunch. I just laid out everything on the table for him. I said, ‘I really don’t care what’s transpired since 2009. I don’t care what people think of you.’ Because when someone says to me, ‘He can’t do it with this guy,’ or, ‘He’s done,’ that adds more to what I want to do. That’s when I say, ‘Okay, this is the last stop and we’re going to get it done.’

“He came in and he was very open to everything I said. I was very straightforward with him. I said, ‘Look, you’re coming to me for a reason. You do me no favors. I’m going to change your life – you just have to want it.’ He was like ‘Okay.’ Then I said, ‘You tell me now what you want to do,’ and he laid everything out. He absorbed everything and became like a robot. You can’t have anybody here – there’s no distractions, no friends. Nothing. And I’m nice to people, but I’m very blunt and honest a lot of times. People say I have no filter. But my thing is, if you ask me a question, I’m going to give you the answer… even if you may not like it. I said to Hasheem, ‘Whatever you’ve done, obviously it hasn’t worked. So whatever bullsh** you’ve gone through, it hasn’t worked. This is going to be totally different.’ Listen, my sh** is hard to begin with. Out of every 10 people who start working with me, only three stay. But I give everyone the opportunity because anybody can do this, if they truly want it. He wanted it, and now the old Hasheem does not exist anymore.”

Newton is an NBA executive who most recently worked as the general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2013 to 2016 (he was let go in May of this year). Since leaving the Wolves, Newton has been working as Thabeet’s basketball trainer. Matrisciano is in charge of making sure Thabeet is in the best shape of his life, and he asked his longtime friend Newton to be in charge of Thabeet’s on-court work. Newton has helped the big man improve his post moves, footwork and free-throw shooting among other things, while also providing guidance and being brutally honest with Thabeet about how he’s perceived by front offices around the NBA.

“I said this to Frank and I spoke to Hasheem about it too: A lot of times, players want someone to work them out, but they want to work on what they want to work on,” Newton said. “I’ve been around someone who, I think, is the greatest coach to coach the game in Larry Brown and I played alongside Danny Manning, an outstanding player who had terrific footwork. I stressed to Hasheem, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be a rebounder for you. If you really want to improve, I can put you through a workout that will help you improve your footwork and have you playing with your back to the basket.’ Each workout was about an hour and 15 minutes long. I saw that he’s serious about becoming a better player and becoming a mainstay in the NBA. He never complained. I was impressed with his work ethic too. People wonder, ‘You’re 7’3; why aren’t you in the NBA?’ I said, ‘Look, that’s in the past.’ Sometimes it takes bigs a little bit longer [to develop] and sometimes you’re waiting for the right opportunity to play in this league. I know he’s recommitted to the game and he’s not afraid of hard work.”

Three NBA teams – the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Washington Wizards – recently worked out Thabeet because they wanted to see his transformation up close in person. The Knicks (on September 1) and the Wizards (on September 9) sent executives to his training site in San Francisco and worked him out there. The Lakers, meanwhile, brought Thabeet to their facility for a two-day free agent workout on September 19-20.

“When the Knicks came out to see him, they were like, ‘Holy sh**!’” Matrisciano said. “[New York’s Director of Player Personnel] Mark Hughes and others came out, and the first thing they all said was, ‘Holy sh**, look at this guy’s body! He is so muscular.’ They go, ‘Look his legs! Look at his back muscles coming out of his shirt!’ I said, ‘I know!’ Now that’s all well and good, but I knew that would happen; it wasn’t a surprise to me. I said, ‘Now, watch how it translates to the court.’ And when they saw the stuff he did on the court, they were like, ‘Holy sh**.’ He’s moving well, he’s fluid, he’s jumping, he’s showing the athleticism, he’s knocking down shots. I had him at 84 percent shooting, I believe, from the free throw line. It was all documented. It was incredible, and again, that’s why they want to see it. It’s not just about looking great. You may be in the best physical shape of your life, but if you can’t translate it to the court, what good is it? It has translated for Hasheem.

“You’ll see I’m not bullsh***ing. If he sucked, I’d tell you because that’s my reputation. If I said he looked great and then he sucked, I’m putting my name on the line. I’m not going to lie for anybody. He deserves to be in the NBA because he is talented and he put the effort in. Doing this training, day after day, it wears on you. But he kept getting stronger and stronger, doing things he could never do. He’d be like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I did this.’ To his credit, he did everything I asked him to do and excelled. Everything. He’s done a tremendous job. When someone comes in here and does what he’s done, they get some big-time respect [from me].”

Thabeet knows that he’s running out of opportunities to prove himself, so he must do well when he makes his NBA comeback. This means he and his camp will be picky about his next team, ensuring that he’ll have a reasonable opportunity to succeed wherever he lands. The plan, as of now, is to see where teams are at after making training camp cuts and then having Thabeet join a team after the start of the season (perhaps once an injury or trade leaves a squad in need of a rim protector).

For reference, think of how Hassan Whiteside joined the Miami Heat during the 2014-15 season. He had to work his way into the rotation and only then did he start to shine (which culminated in him posting monster numbers and then signing a maximum contract several months ago). That’s obviously the best-case scenario for a player in that position, but several members of Thabeet’s camp believe he could have a similar comeback. Whiteside produced even less than Thabeet during his early time in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings, and both players had similar red flags about their attitude, work ethic and love of the game. Whiteside is also proof that sometimes a center with all of the physical tools and athleticism neccessary to succeed just needs to find the right situation to thrive.

“Given a really good opportunity, I think he’ll be great,” Newton said of Thabeet. “Look at a guy like Hassan Whiteside, who has always been an extremely talented player. Having the Heat organization believe in him and having teammates who believed in him was huge. I always say that if you have a coach who believes in you, it means two things: You’re going to run through a wall for him and you’re going to play better because you have someone who has confidence in you. I think Hasheem is at the point right now in his career where he understands that you don’t get to play in the NBA forever – it’s a very fast and fleeting career. I think he’s really going to take advantage of the next opportunity that he gets going forward.”

Time and time again throughout their workouts, Newton was surprised by things that Thabeet was never taught despite spending so much time at basketball’s highest level. Matrisciano said that many coaches in the past would tell Thabeet to just block shots and grab rebounds rather than helping him expand his skill set and making him a more well-rounded player. Other trainers who have worked with Thabeet in the past said similar things, expressing shock over some of the things that Thabeet needed to learn from square one.

It’s easy to forget that Thabeet was never really given the opportunities that most second overall picks receive. He has started just 20 games over the course of his five-year NBA career. Twenty. He didn’t receive a ton of playing time either, averaging 10.5 minutes per game for his career. Part of this was because he was a project since he started playing basketball at 15 years old. But rather than putting him on a proper development plan or letting him gain experience on the court, Thabeet was sort of cast aside and then bounced around from team to team.

In five years, he played for four different NBA teams and three different D-League squads. That lack of continuity was problematic for a raw big man trying to learn how to operate in the post, bulk up and (perhaps most importantly) gain confidence.

“Ugh, it was very frustrating,” Thabeet said. “Coming from a big program where I started for Jim Calhoun at UConn my freshman year until the year I left, then starting 20 games in the NBA? And even the starts that I had were because the other center was hurt, so they had no choice but to start me. It was hard, but I don’t dwell on that. I have worked so hard this summer and I’m ready to move on. As I grow into the game, I learned to understand that all of that is part of being a pro. You have to be ready at any time, no matter what.”

Thabeet’s confidence took a big hit when he was sent down to the Grizzlies’ D-League affiliate in February of his rookie year. This made him the highest draft pick ever sent down to the D-League, which became a national headline and something that was repeated over and over when Thabeet’s name was mentioned. Then, bouncing around from team to team certainly didn’t help the big man’s self-esteem.

But now, after spending more than half a year training daily with Newton and Matrisciano, Thabeet is in a different place. Remember, there’s a reason he was the No. 2 pick in the draft back in 2009. He’s 7’3 with a 7’6.25 wingspan, 9’6 standing reach and 34-inch max vertical jump. Prior to declaring for the draft, he averaged 13.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.2 blocks while shooting 64 percent from the field as a junior at Connecticut. He never averaged less than 3.8 blocks per game over the course of a full season during his collegiate career, and he led the Big East in blocks every year he was at UConn.

“I think his confidence level is really high,” Newton said. “How do you get confidence? You get confidence from repetition. And believe me, he’s gotten repetition this summer. Sometimes I think with most of the modern NBA players, if it’s not fancy, they don’t think it will work or it’s not something that’s attractive to them. Hasheem went back to the very basics and fundamentals of the game in terms of proper footwork and doing it over and over and over and over again. He would stop drills to correct himself if he made a mistake, which showed me that he was getting it.

“I would always ask, ‘Hey ‘Sheem, on a scale of one to 10, how comfortable do you feel shooting this shot in a game?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, I feel like an eight,’ or, ‘I’d say a nine.’ As I would ask him that later on in the summer, he would say, ‘It’s a 10; I would take this shot in a game.’ We don’t want him to be mechanical, but we want him to be in the position where if he’s being played one way then automatically he knows, ‘Okay, I’ll go to this move,’ or, ‘I’m being played on the left side, so I’ll drop step to the right.’ And I think as the summer went on, he really started to understand fundamentally how to be and how to react to a defender.”

Thabeet is excited about the strides he made this summmer and he’s excited to use what he learned on the court, ideally against NBA competition.

“My offseason has been great,” Thabeet said. “I worked so hard. Physically, I worked on my body and I’m in the best shape that I’ve ever been. I’ve gotten stronger, I’m running better and I worked a ton on my game. I did a lot of reps – hitting left and right hook shots comfortably. It was great. Mentally, I’m in a great place too. I’m way more confident and comfortable now because I’ve learned to work harder and focus more. I know what I need to do while I’m out there, but I also watch film, work on my body and things like that. I’m in the best shape of my life. At first, I was just taller than everyone else and it was almost like I was playing off of adrenaline rush – just young and out there and feeling like so much was coming my way. That’s not the case anymore. I’ve progressed a lot. I’m more mature when it comes the game.

“I got a chance to work with former Timberwolves general manager Milt Newton and he taught me a lot of things. He told me a lot of the things that were said about me [by executives] and I had no idea about them. That helped me grow a lot and I worked on fixing those things through hard work. Off the court, I have grown up. I made some mistakes here and there because I’m human; I was a young man and things happened for me at lightning speed. But I don’t dwell on my mistakes or let them stop me from progressing. Everything that happened helped me mature, and I learned to connect with the community. Now, I have so many projects that I’m doing back home for the youth of Tanzania and I’m proud of that. Off the court, I’m all about doing things for the community and being a professional. I’m aware that I’m not only representing the team that signs me, but also the city where I am playing.”

While his offense has made significant strides, Thabeet knows that he can make the biggest impact with his defense in the paint. He believes that he’s still capable of being an elite shot-blocker in the NBA and is determined to prove this as soon as he can get on a roster. When asked what he can bring to an NBA tem, Thabeet didn’t hesitate with his response.

“I would reclaim the rim protector title,” Thabeet said. “I want to go back to blocking shots and controlling the defensive end the way I did in college. I now know how to be vocal. I want to go back to what I was known for and that’s defending at a high level. I wasn’t averaging 20-plus points in college, but I knew I could play great defense for as long as I was out on the court. I definitely think I could be one of the NBA’s top shot-blockers. I’ve worked on my body, power, explosiveness and a whole lot of other things. Mentally, I’m more focused than ever.

“I’m anxiously waiting. I miss playing and competing. It feels like something that I love doing is getting taken away from me and I need to get it back as soon as possible. I’ve worked hard, and I know the hard work doesn’t stop here. From here on out, I understand what it takes to be at this level and it’s only right to keep the good habits going.”

In recent years, critics have said that Thabeet doesn’t love the game of basketball and that the game simply found him due to his size. Thabeet shrugs this off, while admitting that the label does annoy him.

“To me, I never really focused on that,” Thabeet said. “My focus is on playing the game. This is something I fell in love with and I chose to do. So when I hear somebody talking like that and saying things like that, I really try to not let it get to me. Whatever they have to say, they are just going to have to see me on the court now and they are going to have to judge by that. This is important to me.

“Of course the doubters motivate me, but you can’t just be motivated by the negativity. I have to be self motivated too. And I am, because I love what I do. Yes, part of me wants to go out there and prove all of those people wrong, but I’m also self motivated.”

Would someone who doesn’t love the game or have the necessary passion put themselves through six months of hell and cut themselves off from family and friends in order to make a serious comeback attempt? Unlikely. Matrisciano heard the gossip about Thabeet, but didn’t see anything to back it up.

“For people to say, ‘He’s lazy, he doesn’t put in effort, he’s mentally weak, he’s aloof,’ that’s ridiculous. What I saw was completely the opposite actually,” Matrisciano said. “I’m very proud of him because he’s worked his ass off.”

In addition to the intense training, Newton had Thabeet watch a ton of film. Thabeet loves studying legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, and trying to implement some of their amazing skills into his own repertoire.

“I like a lot of centers, and I honestly watch all of the big men who have come before me,” Thabeet said. “I figure watching greats like Kareem, Hakeem and others can only help me. I want to shoot the running hook like Kareem. I think if I work on it more, it’ll be a good weapon to have in the arsenal. And I love Hakeem’s spin moves and quick feet.”

“We went through post footwork; I looked at all the greats and that’s what we incorporated in to the workouts,” Newton said. “I had specific names for the moves. I had him working on ‘the Danny Manning up-and-under,’ ‘the Danny Manning double chop step-post move, ‘the Kareem skyhook,’ which a lot of players say isn’t a sexy shot. I asked Hasheem, ‘If you could score 20 points on skyhooks, is that something that’s appealing to you? He was like, ‘Yeah!’ We also had a move called ‘the Hakeem spin move,’ where I would throw it to him and he would go up and come down and he would spin to the baseline. I mean these are former greats who were just dominant in the post. I mean, if you have a move named after you, you did something right. We also worked on his reverse pivot shot, jump hooks, pivot hooks, running skyhooks, having neutral feet when catching the ball, dribble hand off, pick-and-rolls and things like that. Hasheem is able to do all those post moves because he’s incredibly athletic. With his [34-inch] vertical, he jumps out the gym. He’s physically strong too. He has all of the tools to be a mainstay in the NBA for a very long time. The guy is extremely, extremely talented.”

Thabeet’s agent, Ryan N. Davis, praised Newton and Matrisciano for the work they did while also crediting Hasheem for putting in the time and energy to take these huge strides.

“Hasheem took direction from two professionals, Milt and Frank, who are critical of even the smallest misstep,” Davis said. “The months Hasheem spent with them resulted in a bigger, stronger, faster, more cerebral Hasheem Thabeet. Hasheem has invested sweat equity to improve his standing as a player.”

After overseeing his growth firsthand over the past few months, Newton and Matrisciano believe it’s only a matter of time until Thabeet salvages his career and changes how he’s perceived.

“I’m very confident,” Newton said. “I’m very confident. He still has a lot left and his mentality is one that, to me, is of a player who is willing to work hard and who is committed to the game. You don’t do what he has done this summer and not have a commitment to play the game. That, in a sense, is a change from when he initially got into the league. I believe that when he gets with an NBA team, if given the opportunity, he understands that it’s something he’s going to have to prove in practice before he may even get in to a game. His practices will be games. But with all coaches, if you show that you can do it in practice, that’s when you get the opportunities in games and I think he understands that. He’s willing to go through that process again.

“He’s only worked out for three teams – the Knicks, Wizards and Lakers – so teams still don’t know the work he’s put in or what he’s done. They still think he’s the old Hasheem, when he really isn’t. I think people will see that he is a different player when he gets with an NBA team and he gets in games and he plays well. That’s when, I think, people will start investigating and wondering what he did over the summer to improve. I mentioned his name to a couple other teams [outside of the three that worked him out], people I know and trust in the league. I won’t mention those names, but they hadn’t seen him and so the only memory they had of him is the old Hasheem.

“And all I would say is, ‘I guarantee when you see him playing in the winter, you’ll remember our conversation.’”

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About Alex Kennedy

Alex Kennedy

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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