Hasheem Thabeet wants nothing more than to forget about the past and focus on the present.
Can't blame him for that.
The first three seasons of his NBA career were rough. Three teams. Four coaches. Lots of struggles.
Which means that this season with the Thunder already qualifies as a success. As the reserve big man prepares to face Memphis, the team that drafted him, he is flirting with career bests in points, rebounds, minutes and field goal percentage in his first season in Oklahoma City.
He's already at a career high in happiness.
“I love doing what I'm doing,” Thabeet said as he sat courtside at the Thunder practice facility Wednesday. “Every time I get to come out here, I love it.”
The Thunder has to feel pretty good about him, too. Signed to a two-year deal that will cost the team less than a million dollars a season, Thabeet has more than adequately filled the void left by the departures of Nazr Mohammed and Cole Aldrich. This was a team that needed a backup big man, and the 7-foot-3 center has been huge.
He's averaging a modest 2.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 11.6 minutes a game, but those numbers are almost double any of his other seasons.
“He's a different person since he's been there,” his agent Ugo Udezue said. “I don't know what Scott Brooks and the organization has done, but he's been a totally different person.”
So, what has the Thunder done?
Why is Thabeet starting to scratch the surface on the talent that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft?
For starters, the Thunder didn't saddle him with all the expectations that normally come with being the No. 2 pick. The team didn't expect him to be a game changer or even a finished product.
“We're going to put him in a situation to succeed,” Udezue remembers Brooks and Thunder general manager Sam Presti saying when they expressed interest in acquiring Thabeet last summer. “We're not going to put him in a situation where he has to do too much.”
That hasn't always been the case.
From the beginning in Memphis, expectations were sky high for Thabeet. He was drafted behind only Blake Griffin and ahead of the likes of James Harden, Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry. And as those guys excelled in their rookie seasons, the pressure built on Thabeet.
He played quite a bit early for the Grizzlies, even started several ballgames, but he struggled. There were quick fouls. There were bad turnovers. There were painful sequences.
The Grizzlies worked with him, having him catch tennis balls to try and improve his hand-eye coordination. But by February of his rookie season, Thabeet was struggling so badly that the Grizzlies sent him to the D-League.
He tore it up, frankly, but that dominate play didn't translate once he returned to the Grizzlies.
By his second season in Memphis, fans stood and booed when he checked into games.
His positive attitude, particularly in his all-capital-letters Twitter posts, only made things worse. It angered fans even more. They saw him playing badly, and yet, everything he said was good and happy.
Before the trade deadline, Memphis shipped him to Houston.
Rick Adelman, then the Rockets coach, seemed to have no use for Thabeet. That feeling didn't change much when Kevin McHale took over as coach before the next season.
Before the trade deadline, Houston shipped him to Portland.
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.