Solomon: New Rocket Thabeet needs time to develop
When asked by the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., to describe his rookie year, Hasheem Thabeet gave an interesting response: "I was like a deer in a flashlight."
Even though Thabeet speaks five languages, that was not the English saying he was going for. Then again, the way he has played in two NBA seasons, any bright light, even the beam of a flashlight, has seemed to be too much for him.
It can be like that when you are still learning how to play the game. Thabeet grew up playing soccer in Tanzania, a country of 41 million in southeast Africa.
Thabeet, who turned 24 last week, didn't begin playing basketball until age 15, not long after his father died. For the oldest male child in one of the world's poorest countries, coming to America was a way to provide a better life for his family.
He e-mailed American universities, hoping he might earn a scholarship. An adviser spotted him at a tournament, and he ended up on a curious winding road through a couple of high schools in California and Mississippi before landing in Houston, where he moved in with a family to attend Cypress Christian High School.
When Thabeet arrived at Cypress Christian in 2005, he had difficulty performing the simplest of basketball skills. Awkward and uncoordinated, even at 7-3, he had trouble dunking a basketball.
The general consensus was Thabeet couldn't play big-time Division I basketball.
That's what University of Connecticut assistant coach Andre LaFleur thought the first time he saw Thabeet play. When he saw him a second time, Thabeet was much improved. The third time, he was even better.
LaFleur was in Houston when the 7-3 center battled Blake Griffin at a tournament in Kingwood. LaFleur's report back to UConn coach Jim Calhoun was that Thabeet could someday be the No. 1 pick in the NBA.
Thabeet ended up being the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft, behind Griffin.
Thabeet goes on
"He played basketball like he was playing soccer," LaFleur said, "but the key was every time you saw him, he got better.
"You have to consider: Every time he experiences something it is a first for him. His background is so different from American players who dream of being NBA stars. Just making it to college made him a star back home. He had to learn about setting new goals. He just didn't know."
Now, almost two years into his NBA career, many see Thabeet in much the same way as LaFleur did that first time ï¿½ tall, raw and not likely to be able to contribute.
The Rockets, who traded Shane Battier and Ish Smith to Memphis for Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll and a first-round pick, are hoping the big man's early struggle in the NBA is the same as what he experienced in high school and college.
"Obviously we need a center on our team," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said. "Hasheem Thabeet is someone who has the potential to develop into a very significant interior defender, a very significant center over time. Right now he's not there. If he was there, we would not have been able to get him."
Pride pushes him to excel
Thabeet's confidence has taken a hit, but LaFleur said Thabeet is a prideful person. The sensitivity of being so heavily criticized might sting, but being considered a bust hurts more.
"Usually if a player outplayed him the first time they met, he turned the tables completely the next time," LaFleur said. "That's pride."
By the time he left Cypress Christian, the big man who could barely dunk when he arrived in Houston had cracked a rim throwing down so hard.
By the time he left UConn, the kid who wasn't a highly rated recruit until late in his senior season, was the Big East Co-Player of the Year and a two-time national defensive player of the year.
Now he is being told he can't play in the NBA and is one of the most disappointing No. 2 draft picks ever.
"I know that defensively I am effective although I can always improve," Thabeet wrote in an e-mail to the Chronicle's Rockets writer Jonathan Feigen on Friday. "One thing I've learned is that you can always get better. I am here to work hard, learn the Rockets system and I'm excited about this opportunity."
Bob Lanier has worked with him. Thabeet worked out a bit with his idol Hakeem Olajuwon before his rookie season. He has studied tapes of other great big men like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But he hasn't mastered any of the moves.
Just needs nurturing
"At the least, I see him being a very impactful player in the league," LaFleur said. "I think he is at the point where now he has experienced it. He has been in the NBA and he hasn't played, so that hurts. It's not like him not to fight back. He's a tough kid.
"To come from where he came, to accomplish what he has to a degree he had realized his dreams. Now it is on him to expand that dream. Dream bigger.
"I know the NBA isn't a nurturing league, but if the Rockets put the time in with him, and I think they will, he will respond. I know he can. I have seen him do it."
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