By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; D07
Roy Hibbert's emergence as one of the Indiana Pacers' most important players - and a strong candidate to be named the NBA's most improved player - actually began this summer at an Indianapolis hospital. The Pacers sent him there for testing after a second straight season in which he often faded late in games.
"For five hours I sat in a glass box and breathed into a tube in short bursts," Hibbert said this week. "It came back with a diagnosis of athlete-induced asthma."
Hibbert now uses an inhaler, once in the morning and again prior to tip-off. And as it turns out, that pocket-size device is all the 7-foot-2 center needed to unlock his enormous potential. Despite some recent struggles with his shot, Hibbert brings averages of 14 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2 blocked shots per game into Wednesday's meeting with the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center, the arena in which he starred for Georgetown from 2004 to 2008. Last season, the Adelphi native averaged 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds.
"I had been playing five- or six-minute stretches," he said. "Now I'm playing whole quarters sometimes."
Breathing easier, though, isn't the only reason for Hibbert's uptick in production. He also worked himself into the best shape of his life during the offseason by spending 90 minutes each day practicing mixed martial arts, a sport he discovered online and eventually tried at the urging of a member of the Pacers' security staff.
"Being an NBA player, we have a lot of free time on our hands," the always affable Hibbert said with a laugh. "I spent a lot of time on iTunes watching 'The Ultimate Fighter' [a reality show on the Spike television network]. I really believe those guys are the best-conditioned athletes in the world."
"The only problem was gloves," he cracked. "I couldn't find any to fit my hands."
Hibbert didn't let that minor detail hold him back. Three times a week, right after completing a grueling 3Â½-hour, basketball-specific workout, he made a 40-minute drive to suburban Indianapolis to get in touch with his inner Brock Lesnar.
"I would just be exhausted, and sore," he said. "But it was probably the best thing I could do conditioning-wise.
"My whole life I had been a big boy."
Hibbert slimmed down from nearly 280 pounds to about 250. His body-fat index, meantime, decreased to below 8 percent. Better breathing, coupled with the weight loss, has allowed him to play more minutes - his average is up to 29.7 per game from 25.1 last season - and exert more energy for longer stretches.
"Roy is one of the hardest workers I have ever been around," Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said when asked if he was surprised by Hibbert's commitment to honing his game and conditioning. "He's not just [in contention] to be the NBA's most improved player; he's playing toward becoming an all-star."
That's certainly how the season started for Hibbert, which began with a 28-point effort against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs and seven double-doubles in the Pacers' first 22 games. But his production has declined in each of the past three months, and just about the time he was widely mentioned among the candidates for most improved player, he really began scuffling, much like the Pacers.
After a 14-rebound, 13-point performance against Charlotte on Dec. 10, Hibbert shot a combined 31.6 percent from the floor over the next seven games, including a 1-of-10 effort against Emeka Okafor and New Orleans and a 5-of-17 performance in Sunday's loss to Memphis. Indiana has lost six of its past eight games after Tuesday night's loss to Boston.
Asked about Hibbert's chances of being named the league's most improved player earlier this month, Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien told reporters: "I think that Roy would say - and I certainly share this belief - I don't think he's having a good season. I think he can play at a much higher level right away than he's doing right now."
Hibbert, speaking Monday from Indianapolis, did not disagree with his coach's tough-love assessment.
"I believe I have a lot of work to do," he said. "I'm not having as good a season as I would like to have. I have to take it to another level, and that's what he wants me to do. When I heard that stuff, I knew what it's true meaning was."
Hibbert said his recent struggles stem from opponents starting to game-plan against him.
"Before, they would see 'Roy Hibbert' on the scouting report and would say, 'That's nobody,' " he said. "But now teams are really trying to stop me. I have to do a better job trying to figure this out because I have to be better at both ends of the court for this team to be successful."