Thursday, February 25, 2010

Center, and its Discontents: Haddadi in Rotation, Thabeet to Dakota

Posted By on Thu, Feb 25, 2010 at 4:09 PM

Hamed Haddadi, looking cool in the Griz rotation of late.
  • Hamed Haddadi, looking cool in the Griz rotation of late.
The past week has seen a significant shift in the Grizzlies' rotation, with Hamed Haddadi taking over the back-up center role and with Hasheem Thabeet (along with Lester Hudson) now set to be sent to the Dakota Wizards for a developmental league assignment.

First, on Haddadi. After a couple of stints in Dakota himself and either riding the pine of modeling the latest big-and-tall fashions for the first year-and-a-half of his NBA career, Haddadi is now getting a chance to prove he can be a legitimate NBA player. Good for him.

In three consecutive games now receiving rotation minutes as a back-up center, Haddadi has acquitted himself well.

Against New Jersey on Sunday, Haddadi played 15 minutes and though he only shot 1-4 and picked up 5 fouls, he also had 6 rebounds, an assist and a block and didn't really hurt the team (his plus/minus for the game: +3). He gave the Grizzlies passable back-up center minutes. (Thabeet, by contrast, came into the game and immediately sailed an outlet pass out of bounds. He took a seat after one minute and never saw the floor again.)

Then, Tuesday night against the Lakers, Haddadi entered the game early in the second quarter, the Grizzlies down 27-16, and had probably the best stretch of his NBA career. In just a few minutes, Haddadi made a diverse series of good basketball plays: He split a double-team and found Darrell Arthur with a nifty scoop pass for a lay-up. He got an offensive rebound and then got a dunk off of a drop-step. He made a tough catch, froze the defense with a ball fake and got a lay-up. Each of these instances required making multiple, instinctual players in succession. Not a big deal for an NBA player, but for an inexperienced project seven-footer it's not standard performance either. (Haddadi also appeared to block a shot with two hands, though he wasn't credited with it.) The final result was 6 points on 2-3 shooting, 2 rebounds, and an assist in 12 minutes (+4 plus/minus).

Haddadi followed that up with a career-best performance the next night against the Wizards, scoring 8 points (3-4 shooting), grabbing 8 rebounds, and blocking a shot in 15 minutes (+14 plus/minus).

Here's what we seem to know about Haddadi after a year and a half: A bit lumbering and with a heavily labored jump shot, he often looks awkward on the court, and yet he's usually productive when he gets minutes. He's had an extraordinarily high rebound rate so far in his NBA career, albeit in a very small sample of minutes. He's scores well enough right at the rim. He defends the rim and blocks and alters shots reasonably well. And he's a sneaky-good passer. On the downside, his ability to create offense for himself beyond the immediate vicinity of the rim, either with a jumper shot or any kinds of dribble move is severely limited. On the other hand, he was a bearable 60% from the line last season and has been a surprising 10-11 so far this season.

Hasheem Thabeet might need that sweater as a Dakota Wizard.
  • Hasheem Thabeet might need that sweater as a Dakota Wizard.
The biggest difference between Haddadi and Thabeet right now seems to be that while Thabeet is a more imposing athlete and thus both a better shot-blocker and more able to play above the rim, Haddadi is far more alert. He plays with much more focus and a higher basketball IQ.

So, what Haddadi is doing doesn't really surprise me. I've always thought he was a cut above the big-man roster fodder — the Cezary Trybanskis and Robert Archibalds Grizzlies fans have seen. He's more in line with Jake Tsakalidis, a limited player but one that can play a legitimate role for a team. Now, I have a hard time seeing that role develop into anything beyond what it's been the past few games: A marginal back-up center playing 10-15 minutes a game. As long as Marc Gasol is healthy and not in foul trouble, the Grizzlies can get by with that as their second-string center, which is why the Hasheem Thabeet pick never made any sense: The Grizzlies reached for a project center when they had a terrific young center already in place and bypassed a bunch of really good guards when they had a big hole in the backcourt EVEN IF Mike Conley had been able to build on his strong finish last season. I made that case before the draft and remain perplexed by what was always a thoroughly misguided draft pick. But anyway…

I'm glad to see Thabeet going to Dakota. He needs to play. And if it's not with the Grizzlies, it needs to be somewhere. Taking Thabeet #2 was bad enough. Letting him rot on the bench is even worse. I hope he responds well and gets back into the Grizzlies rotation before the end of the season. I hope he does something — anything — to rehab what must be plummeting trade value. The Grizzlies can't get a do-over on what was a profound mistake — and I say that not because I don't think Thabeet can ever be a valuable NBA player; I think he can, but will be surprised if he's ever close to what Marc Gasol is — but hopefully they can still turn Thabeet into some kind of more-needed contributor before next season. Letting him sit on the bench the rest of the year would be counter-productive to that goal.

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