Thabeet seeks boost from D-League stay

The plush surroundings of all those Ritz Carltons and Four Seasons have disappeared. These days, Hasheem Thabeet(notes) rests his head in a two-star motel in chilly Bismarck, N.D. Gone, too, are the charter flights and all the legroom they afforded.

Eight months ago Thabeet was celebrating his selection as the second overall pick of the NBA draft. He now holds a new distinction: the highest pick ever to be sent to the NBA’s Development League. That’s not to say Thabeet has lost all his star power: In honor of his arrival, the Dakota Wizards discounted general-admission tickets for Wednesday’s game to $2.

Hasheem Thabeet (center) is the highest NBA draft pick to ever play in the D-League.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

For Thabeet, the D-League is home, at least for a little bit, and he’s determined to make the best of it.

People in the NBA are “definitely looking at it negatively,” Thabeet said. “ ‘He’s the No. 2 pick. He’s not supposed to be there. I can’t believe that guy is over there and he’s the second pick.’ But you got to go and work your way up there. I’m working my way up here, working on my confidence.

“When the time comes, I’ll be able to answer the call.”

The Memphis Grizzlies decided they couldn’t pass on Thabeet’s potential to become a shot-blocking giant when they drafted the 7-foot-3 center. A second-team All-America from the University of Connecticut, Thabeet drew comparisons to former NBA defensive great Dikembe Mutombo(notes). In doing so, however, the Grizzlies passed on more NBA-ready prospects like Tyreke Evans(notes), James Harden(notes), Jonny Flynn(notes) and Stephen Curry(notes).

Thabeet’s high draft selection earned him a $4.5 million salary for his rookie season, and he admits to feeling immense pressure to succeed immediately. His contributions, however, were much more modest: Before being sent to Dakota, he was averaging 2.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and two fouls in 10.3 minutes per game. He’s struggled to adjust to the quicker pace of the NBA and his offensive skills still need considerable refining.

“People are expecting a lot from you,” Thabeet said. “Your teammates back from high school and college. Your college coaches, everyone that knows you. They’re all expecting a lot from me. That’s a lot of pressure. But now I have to look at it as motivation to work even harder. They sent me out here. I got to show them, ‘OK, this is not where I belong.’ I just have to keep working hard and my time will come.

“I put myself into this situation. Now I got to deal with it.”

Thabeet’s rookie season reached a low point when he recently lost his place in the rotation to second-year center Hamed Haddadi(notes). Thabeet’s confidence needed a boost, and for that, he needed minutes. So the Grizzlies decided to send him to the D-League for six games. Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said Haddadi benefited from his stay in the D-League last season, and the hope is that Thabeet will do the same.

“We’re looking to give Thabeet playing time and experience,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. “We’re looking for development.”

In Dakota, Thabeet is playing for the league’s smallest-market team in a city with frigid temperatures and a black population of .28 percent. After playing two games in Fort Wayne, Ind., the Wizards flew to Detroit and then to Minneapolis on commercial planes before finally reaching Bismarck. Not quite the posh non-stop charter flights Thabeet was accustomed to taking with the Grizzlies. If Thabeet gets bored, he has the Kirkwood Shopping Mall and Dakota Zoo nearby to hang out.

“It’s pretty cool, but there is not much really to do,” Thabeet said. “I’m just focused on what brought me here. I’m on a mission and I want to show people what I’ve been working on.”

Thabeet’s arrival has generated some interest in Bismarck.

About 20 media members showed up for his introductory news conference. Ryan Carlson, the Wizards’ director of group sales and media relations, had 40 ticket requests from friends for Thabeet’s home debut, which drew a crowd of 2,544, about twice as large as normal. Thabeet didn’t disappoint, totaling 18 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in a 109-81 win over Albuquerque. Afterward, he was greeted by several fans waiting in line for his autograph. Through three D-League games, Thabeet has averaged 15 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.7 blocks while shooting 68 percent.

Dakota coach Rory White said Thabeet remains a “work in progress.” “Right now, it’s all about getting him some confidence, and the only way to do that is to get him some minutes in a real game,” White said.

Thabeet hasn’t grumbled about his D-League assignment. Born in Tanzania, he hasn’t forgotten that he began playing organized basketball just seven years ago. It’s not too long ago that he was emailing coaches and schools, begging for an opportunity to play in the United States.

To Thabeet, this is just another stop in his long, unusual journey.

“This is my job,” Thabeet said. “I just got to come out here and do what they want me to do – my job. I got to continue to work on my weaknesses and get better on them.

“I’m excited and I can’t wait to go back up there.”

Marc Spears is an NBA writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Wednesday, Mar 3, 2010