If you've been putting up shots in a gym in the orbit of Washington, D.C. over the past few months, chances are somewhat good that you've seen a vaguely familiar face there stacked on top of a 7-foot-3 body. He's not just sticking to the more glamorous workout facilities you'd expect to see former NBA lottery picks working out in. He's at church gyms and community centers, high schools and even an Army base, heading all over Virginia and Maryland to work on his game daily. He's playing pickup games, but more often he's working on fundamentals: hoisting 3s, posting up his trainer and then spinning around to shoot a jumper, working on his face-up game, his pick-and-roll game, his pick-and-pop game.
"We go anywhere there's a basketball court," said Hasheem Thabeet, who last played in an NBA game on May 25, 2014, when his Oklahoma City Thunder beat the the San Antonio Spurs, the eventual NBA champion, in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. "We go everywhere. He calls me: 'I have a gym. Let's go.'"
"He" is Keith Williams, a D.C.-based NBA trainer and skills coach who has worked with DeMarcus Cousins, Markelle Fultz and Kevin Durant. Thabeet is, of course, the Tanzanian-born big man who was drafted No. 2 overall in the 2009 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. Thabeet was coming off a standout junior year at UConn, where he averaged 13.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game. He won National Defensive Player of the Year and shared the Big East Player of the Year award for a UConn team that made the Final Four. He had no idea that he was going to be the No. 2 pick until he got the call on draft night; Thabeet hadn't even worked out for the Grizz before they picked him.
It was an inauspicious start to his NBA career -- going to a place he didn't want to go, which became a place where he didn't develop. Thabeet spent less than two seasons in Memphis before he was traded, and during those years, he felt lost: He didn't feel like the coaching staff cared about developing his raw skills, and he didn't feel like his representation saw him as anything more than a paycheck, just some basketball player who was pulling in $4.5 million a year. His family was in Tanzania. He was learning NBA culture, not to mention learning NBA basketball -- a guy who first picked up a basketball at 15, whose father died at 16, who was at an American prep school by 17 then who was at UConn at 18. It had all moved so fast, but by the time he was in Memphis, he felt alone.
"It was definitely a frustrating time, a very difficult time," Thabeet said by phone the other day, after finishing a two-hour workout -- one of three workouts he had planned that day. "It was almost like I was just going through the motions sometimes."
Worse still was that his draft class turned into one of the best draft classes in NBA history. The only player selected before Thabeet was Blake Griffin. Drafted directly after Thabeet was James Harden, who is now the league's reigning MVP. Next in that draft was Tyreke Evans, who won Rookie of the Year that first season and has stayed as a rotation player despite injuries. That draft also included two-time MVP Steph Curry, four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, and All-Stars Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague.
Thabeet's path veered in a different direction straight from the beginning. After the Grizzlies shipped him off to Houston, he barely played for the Rockets. A year later, he was traded to Portland, where he also barely played. He signed with the Thunder, where he played bench minutes in 89 games before getting traded to Philadelphia, who immediately waived him. Since then it's been a brief stint with the Pistons, a promising run in the G League that led nowhere, and then to the Yokohama B-Corsairs in the Japan.
A scout gave me two reasons why Thabeet never made it in the NBA. One was that the effort wasn't always there. He always worked hard while he was in the gym, but he wasn't someone who put in the extra work. The other reason is that soon after Thabeet entered the league, the NBA changed in a major way -- and no role changed more than the role of the big man. There are essentially two types of big successful men in today's NBA: The Marc Gasol/Nikola Jokic-type skilled big man, who can pass, hit 3s, pick and pop. Or the Clint Capela-type explosive big man, who can run to the rim, catch lobs, protect the rim and switch onto smaller players on defense. Thabeet didn't fit either mold, since he was never the switchy-type of big man that excels in today's NBA that values versatility.
Thabeet knows the word that's on the tip of your tongue when you think of his basketball career: bust. He knows people call him one of the biggest draft busts in history, especially when you consider the impressive names who were selected after him. He knows it, and the 31-year-old doesn't try to let it affect him one way or the other. He doesn't let that label get him down, nor does he use that label to drive him.
"I go and look at it and I think, 'Wow, why did you go the way you went?'" Thabeet said. "But I can't focus on that. I have to focus on the now."
And the now is what is perhaps most interesting for Thabeet. He says he's in the best shape of his life. He's working out three times a day, from skills work on the court to lifting in the weight room to running and plyometrics. He's running seven-minute miles. He's never been injury-prone. His body is more cut up now than it was when he was in college. He can jump and reach the top of the backboard. He's extended his range to the 3-point line; his agent, Jerry Dianis, sent me a video where he knocked down four out of five 3-pointers, which doesn't necessarily mean he's going to turn into Dirk Nowitzki but is certainly much more than you'd expect from Hasheem Thabeet. He's recently worked out for three Eastern Conference contenders -- the Philadelphia 76ers, the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks -- and has more workouts coming up. One NBA executive said he was "pleasantly surprised about Hasheem's attitude and outlook."
The top two things Thabeet has been working on with Williams are shooting game shots -- not just stationary shooting but coming off screen-and-rolls, backing into a shot -- and being able to cover guards in this pick-and-roll heavy league: How to keep guards in front of him, how to keep them out of the lane, then run alongside them and block the shot.
"He's so much more mature," Williams said. "He understands how things work, what it takes in order to get him back in the NBA and help one of these teams win some games. I think he could be similar to a Clint Capela. He's so important to the James Harden pick-and-roll. When he dives hard, the defense has to make a decision on what to do. Hasheem can bring that type of activity. His energy is infectious and it helps the team."
The pitch Thabeet's team is making to NBA teams: Those types of players -- the player Thabeet is attempting to become a decade after he was drafted so high -- get paid a lot of money. But teams in need of a backup big man who can protect the rim will be able to get Thabeet at a hugely discounted price.
"Mentally, spiritually, I'm all feeling really well," Thabeet said. "It's been a lot of ups and downs. You don't stop living just because a certain situation doesn't go your way. The key was just to keep improving my understanding of the game. For as many years as I haven't been playing at a very high level ... it didn't stop me from learning the game and studying the game. This is something I really love doing. I could go back home [to Tanzania] and live good. But I still have a desire and love for the game."
Thabeet knows people will say whatever they want to say about him: That he's a bust, that he'll never make it in the NBA, that he's too old. But plenty of the guys Thabeet was drafted in front of still play in the NBA, and Thabeet doesn't have the mileage on his body that those players do, so he dismisses the age thing out of hand. He says he's in the best shape of his life, and he says he is wiser than ever before.
"I'm ready to go," Thabeet said. "No matter what's being said about me or what's passed behind me, I've grown from it. All the stereotypes about me -- I'm not the same person I was a few years ago. I'm ready for whatever. The big key is that I'm a team player. I'm ready to be on a team. That's what I'm looking forward to. I hope it happens. I have the will. I have the power. Now I just have to have the opportunity."