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NBA All-Star Game: Roy Hibbert’s journey from project to masterpiece

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Soon after John Thompson III took over Georgetown in 2004, he had a pointed question for his brother Ronnie, who had a major hand in recruiting Roy Hibbert out of Georgetown Prep under former Hoyas coach Craig Esherick.

“What in the world did you see in him?” J.T. III asked.

“He called me after his first workout to ask me that,” Ronnie said Friday. “To put it bluntly, Roy was awful. He couldn’t run. No, really, a basketball player on scholarship at a major Division I university could not run.

“They put him on the side with [Hoyas men’s basketball trainer] Lorry Michel to teach him. When I got him on a treadmill, I thought he was [messing] with me. I put the speed at 5.0. He couldn’t do it; he wasn’t coordinated enough.”

Eight years later, Ronnie pauses to contemplate an extreme makeover, the transformation of a doe-eyed, gawky freshman to one of the most complete big men in pro basketball.

“If you would have told any of us even in his freshman year that he would be the next NBA all-star from Georgetown, we would have laughed at you,” he said.

As the NBA community convenes in Orlando for All-Star Weekend, two stories have taken center court: Where is Dwight Howard going and where did Jeremy Lin come from?

But here’s another that requires genuine explanation: How in the world did Roy Hibbert, a guy who once had trouble successfully putting one foot in front of the other, end up here?

“It’s just a testament to hard work,” he said after midnight Thursday from Orlando by telephone. “Everybody is talking about Jeremy Lin. I feel guys like him, [Portland’s] Wesley Matthews, myself — guys that went to school for four years and put their time in, got their education and got their degrees — can make an impact in this league.

“You don’t have to be one-and-done and just be all potential.”

No, sometimes you just have to grow in ways that can’t be measured on a height chart.

See, when you’re 7 feet 2, no one thinks that. But that’s all Hibbert did: grow — mentally, emotionally, in the weight room, every year since he left high school. With height his only God-given advantage, he grew himself into an all-star.

He dropped a 30-point, 13-rebound performance on New Orleans earlier this week. Hibbert is averaging almost 14 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots per game. Since his rookie season, his numbers have almost doubled in scoring and tripled in rebounding and the Indiana Pacers are finally winning again.

In this immediate-gratification world, Hibbert might just be better evidence than Lin of what happens when patience and perseverance collides with opportunity.

“People need to realize that it takes time,” he said. “As a rookie, I wanted it all at once, and you can’t have it. You have to learn to play without fouling. You have to learn what you can do and what you can’t do. It’s a process. It’s something that for big guys, it takes a little longer than others, and it depends on your work ethic. My parents instilled that into me at a young age.”

Roy Hibbert Sr., and his wife, Paddy, still live in Bowie and catch as many of Roy’s games as they can. His father remembers a magazine saying his son could be an NBA player as far back as 1998, but by the time he heard all the uncomplimentary things about Roy in his first year at Georgetown — “Gangly, he can’t do anything,” Roy Sr. recalled — he had his doubts.

Then John Thompson Jr. gave his early pronouncement: “He just didn’t think that he would make it,” Roy Sr. said.

In the NBA?

“No, in college. He was saying he couldn’t run and all that type of stuff. What people don’t realize about Roy is he likes it when people criticize him like that. It makes him prove them wrong.”

Roy now credits Big John’s harsh criticism early as one of the main reasons for his success.

Of the five centers taken in the first round of the 2008 NBA draft, Hibbert is the only all-star. The idea he would get to an all-star game before Greg Oden, Portland’s star-crossed, injury-prone center taken No. 1 overall in 2007, is just insane.

Taken No. 17 by Toronto and then traded to Indiana, he was selected one spot ahead of JaVale McGee, another 7-footer still wrestling with how much he really wants to be part of a vanishing fraternity: that of the bona fide big man.

The criticism Hibbert received for not leaving school in 2007 and becoming a lottery pick has been hushed by the notion that his agent, David Falk, will this summer negotiate a much-richer, longer deal with Pacers President Larry Bird than anyone imagined just four years ago.

“[Roy] Hibbert would need a parachute to slow his freefall down the draft board”

— anonymous NBA scout to the Boston Globe, June 2008

“I’m mostly an even-keeled guy, but that stuck with me all the time,” he said. “Whoever that writer is I would love for you to find out what he has to say now.”

What’s that saying? Success is the greatest revenge of all?

Hibbert is playing on a team likely bound for the playoffs. He had a guest-starring role on the sitcom “Parks and Recreation” last year. He is engaged to his college girlfriend, Valerie Cook, and just joined the ranks of Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo as Big Man U’s latest NBA all-star.

This weekend, the freshman who once had to learn how to run before he could deposit a baby hook in the lane, before he could drop-step and dunk, will receive his well-deserved, hard-earned recognition as one of the very best basketball players in the world.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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