The Trailblazers were trying to clear salary cap space and stockpile draft picks. Thabeet was largely a deal-filler with an expiring contract, and since the team was still in the playoff hunt at the time, they didn't immediately play him.
And even though the Blazers thought enough of him to include him in a young-players early morning practice group that they dubbed “The Breakfast Club,” he never managed to crack the rotation.
He has been part of the rotation since Day 1 in Oklahoma City. Yes, it's as a reserve, but frankly, that is part of why Thabeet is excelling. The Thunder doesn't need him to be a star or even a starter. It already has those.
“Oklahoma City is the first team that has not asked Hasheem to do too much, the first team that has actually looked at him and seen how he can help,” Udezue said.
Brooks said he and his coaches have approached Thabeet like they approach all players — figure out what they do well and build on those areas, then shore up weaknesses. Thabeet's strength is protecting the basket, so that's what they've told him to focus on. But then they've asked him to work on catching the ball better around the basket.
He works every day on catching the ball from what the team calls the dunker's spot, the hash mark along the baseline just outside the free throw lane. It's a repetitive drill — post, catch, dunk, repeat — but the results are evident.
Brooks has seen Thabeet progress even in the past month.
“I thought early in the year he didn't have the confidence to catch it and go up strong,” Brooks said. “It's not where it needs to be, but that's an area where I can see major improvement.”
And Thabeet has been responsive to coaching.
Whenever he's in a game, he looks to the bench and big-man coach Mark Bryant after almost every play. He wants feedback. What's he doing wrong? What's he doing well?
“Keep going, keep going,” Bryant will often tell him.
Thabeet said, “That keeps you motivated to keep doing more and more.”
He's motivated, too, by the atmosphere around the Thunder. He likens it to a family, and he said he felt a part of it from the moment he first stepped into the practice facility last summer.
“You walk in ... there's people everywhere that want to do something to help you get better every day,” he said. “It's just a great opportunity for you to come in and capitalize. There's all kind of ways for you to succeed.
“Why shouldn't you succeed?”
That feeling of belonging is the biggest change for Thabeet. He never felt accepted during his first three seasons in the NBA.
No wonder he wants to focus on the present and forget about the past.
“It's kind of hard for someone to keep working hard when they don't see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Udezue said. “I think at this point, he can see the future.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.
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