Hibbert has witnessed Bryant’s demanding personality firsthand (although not as his teammate), and the added pressures of playing in a contract year on a team with irrationally high expectations should bring out the best in the big man.
Per Mike Trudell, Hibbert has already begun to prepare for the upcoming season by shedding a significant amount of weight and concentrating on regaining his status as an elite defender:
Roy Hibbert changed his diet and told me he dropped 16 pounds from his playing weight last season, down from 283 to currently 267.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) July 22, 2015
Part of Hibbert’s goal in dropping so much weight is to get a bit quicker and adapt to how the league has gotten smaller.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) July 22, 2015
Hibbert was an All-Star just two seasons ago, but the pendulum swung too far the other direction in the 2014 playoffs as well as last season, where he averaged just 10.6 points (the lowest of his career since his rookie season) on a dreadful 44 percent from the field for a player of his size. Although he’s struggled to rebound the ball — he averaged 7.1 and 6.6 rebounds in the last two seasons — the Lakers are hoping the big man can rebound from his underwhelming performances with the Pacers and recapture his All-Star form in the upcoming season:
Mitch Kupchak said he got the sense that Roy Hibbert wants to "go back to playing at a very high level and making the All-Star team."
— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) July 10, 2015
What better platform for Hibbert to resurrect his career and showcase his All-Star caliber skills than the bright lights and big stage of Los Angeles? Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak expects Hibbert to use his expiring contract as motivation to play at a high level next season, per a TWC interview with Chris McGee.
“For some reason the last year or so in Indiana, he kind of lost his way. I did talk to him recently and he didn’t put blame on anyone except himself. We know he’s going to play hard, it’s a contract year, so we’ll get his best effort. We’re hoping that at 28, we can see a player who can do some things that we just talked about, rebound and defend and block shots, and protect the rim, which is something we desperately need.”
A common refrain that’s uttered to describe Hibbert, whether from the big man himself or former teammates, is that nobody is harder on him than he is on himself. But that’s probably because he’s never played with Kobe, who just a few seasons ago ran Dwight Howard out of town with his hard-driving approach and shamelessly admitted to making teammates cry.
The dynamic of the Bryant-Hibbert pairing will be interesting to keep an eye on. Will Hibbert fold under Bryant’s vehemence, or will it cause him to thrive? So far, Hibbert believes Bryant will have the latter effect on his game.
“Just being able to play with a great (and) being pushed by somebody that has done it and won five championships. I’m up for a challenge,” Hibbert told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. “People tell me a lot of different things, how he’ll respect me, and I feel like if I go about my business, I can get it done.
One way for Hibbert to earn Bryant’s respect is by sticking to his one true strength, rim protection, which is sorely needed for a Lakers team that finished 29th in the NBA in defensive rating last season. Lakers head coach Byron Scott has reportedly taken the initiative of carving out a defined role for the big man that best suits his strengths:
Lakers coach Byron Scott has told newcomer center Roy Hibbert specifically that they need him to "rebound and protect that paint."
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) July 11, 2015
Hibbert agrees with Scott’s request by describing any offensive contribution he’s able to make as “candy.” The lanky giant can aid the Lakers’ porous defense by simply being 7’2″ and keeping his hands straight up when the opponent drives to the hoop. This is also known as the law of verticality, which is the rule that a defender can absorb contact and not get whistled for a foul so long as he establishes position and jumps straight up. Last season, Hibbert helped keep the Pacers as the fourth-best team defensively despite missing Paul George and George Hill for good chunks of the year.
The 105.3 points per game that the Lakers gave up to their opponents should drop considerably this season with Hibbert manning the middle instead of Jordan Hill. Per Basketball-Reference, Hibbert was the NBA’s 13th-best shot-blocker and boasted the 17th-best defensive rating at 100.6. Hill’s mere 52 blocks and defensive rating of 109, on the other hand, was laughable for a center.
Two of Hibbert’s backups at the moment are the similarly defensive-minded Tarik Black and Robert Upshaw (although his reported two-year contract hasn’t yet been officially announced), both of whom can benefit from Hibbert’s rim-protecting expertise. Both of these young bigs went undrafted but are noted for their defensive potential. The former Pacer can lead by example as well as teach his young counterparts the ropes of protecting the rim.
However, don’t be fooled into thinking Hibbert is going to party it up now that he’s in Los Angeles:
“I’m focused right now on making sure I get back to playing at the ability I’m capable of,” Hibbert said when asked about any extracurricular activities in LA. “One of the first things my agent talked to me about was not getting caught up in the Hollywood stuff.”
As long as Hibbert stays true to his word and works hard, he shouldn’t have any issues with Bryant. Playing with Bryant was never that overbearing for players who were either serious about winning or making championship-level contributions both on and off the court. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, Metta World Peace and Andrew Bynum, just to name a few, all found success playing with the oh-so-scary Bryant.
Even Shaq, who liked to goof around, managed three championships alongside Bryant by simply dominating on the court. And while most fans like to paint the picture of Bryant running Shaq out of LA, the Diesel actually wanted to stay in Purple and Gold before the Lakers decided to trade him, skeptical of his injury history and hefty asking price. Gasol, Odom, Bynum and Shaq all played the best basketball of their careers alongside Bryant — which is something Hibbert hopes to accomplish. Perhaps the only player who bolted out of Los Angeles for feeling overwhelmed by Bryant’s personality and not getting enough touches was Dwight Howard.
Moreover, like the aforementioned players who found success with Bryant, Hibbert is focused on performing up to his potential on the court and figuring out ways to win in grueling situations rather than relying on his ego. Hibbert has certainly shown the tendency to psyche himself out of games by coming down too hard on himself, but Bryant can absolutely motivate the big man to forget the past and push forward.