No Iverson, Lots of Thabeet for Grizzlies
So it was easy for Hasheem Thabeet to slip under the radar, easy even for someone 7-foot-3, 265 pounds and the second overall pick in last June's NBA Draft. As it turned out, in the preseason opener for the Grizzlies and the Washington Wizards, Thabeet stood out more than Iverson, who did not dress because of a strained left hamstring, and Arenas, who proved that while he is back, he is far from all the way back.
The Wizards won, 101-92, and did it by coming back in the fourth quarter mostly while Thabeet was on the floor. Nevertheless, Thabeet made his presence known and felt in his first NBA game; in just over 15 minutes off the bench, he had four blocks, four rebounds (three offensive), six points and five fouls, few of them cheap. He was altering Wizards' shots within minutes of his entry with 3:55 left in the first quarter and officially notched his first block with 1:50 to go, on an Antawn Jamison runner in the lane.
It was about the loudest performance in an otherwise typically-sloppy first preseason game, and it came from someone who wasn't trying to put pressure on himself, and whom the Grizzlies have not tried to rush.
"Coach told me just to stay active,'' Thabeet said, referring to Memphis head coach Lionel Hollins. "They told me to focus on what I do, and everything else will come. I'm trying to establish myself and blend in with the team.''
Hollins said before the game that he had seen improvement in Thabeet -- still raw in most areas even after such a stellar career at Connecticut -- just since the start of training camp. The Grizzlies don't plan to rush him; Marc Gasol is the returning starter at center, and they also used 7-2 Iranian center Hamed Haddadi, who spent most of last season in the D-League, for 14 minutes in the opener. But, Hollins said, Thabeet has impressed in a short time.
"He's come a long way,'' Hollins said. "His footwork and confidence in handling the ball around the basket have been improved. The last three days of training camp, he's finally overcome the work load. It was tough for him physically and mentally, and the light finally came on for him and he was pretty good the last three days.''
The All-American from Connecticut and the Big East co-player of the year last season, hit two of the three shots he took, both jump-hooks in the lane that looked very comfortable. Thabeet looked even more comfortable patrolling the other lane; when the Wizards chased down the rebound of his initial block, 7-foot Brendan Haywood wildly overcompensated on a drive on Thabeet, although Caron Butler followed that with a tip-in. A minute and a half later, Thabeet dropped in a jump hook from the right baseline, and on the ensuing Washington possession, Randy Foye, acquired just before the draft from Minnesota, saw his very first shot as a Wizard, a one-hander in the lane, thrown back at him -- yet, again, Butler (15 points) hit the follow.
Thabeet also picked up three fouls before sitting two minutes into the second quarter, going out with four points and three blocks in his first six minutes of action.
Iverson watched from the end of the bench, in uniform but unable to play after straining the hamstring in practice Saturday; Hollins said Iverson likely would sit for a week and definitely would not play in Wednesday's game in Memphis against Oklahoma City. "If it was Game 7 of the Finals, I wouldn't be able to go,'' Iverson said, adding that he was "frustrated'' at missing the game in front of a virtual home crowd.
All of the drama of Grizzlies training camp has centered on Iverson's late-summer free-agent signing, and the prospect of him opening (on his fourth NBA team) some 90 minutes from his hometown of Hampton, and two hours in the other direction from where he starred at Georgetown, pulled in the crowd -- many of whom didn't find out until arrival that he wouldn't play. Midway through the first quarter, during a stoppage for free throws, a fan shouted, "Where's AI?''
Arenas played 24 minutes and had 10 assists, but scored five points and missed four of his five shots, many of them layups in which he beat his man and got to the rim but did not finish. On the other hand, he showed no deference to a left knee that underwent three operations in the previous 2 1/2 years when, with 8:40 left in the first quarter, he leaped onto the scorer's table and launched himself into the first row of seats in pursuit of a loose ball. He declined to speak to reporters afterward.