Kings take long view with Fredette
Many fans are clamoring for Jimmer Fredette, but he's not playing much with Kings
Coach Keith Smart: Fredette needs more time to develop PG skills, earn trust
Isaiah Thomas, the 60th pick, has outshined his more celebrated rookie teammate
Keith Smart appreciates the advice, even if he won't necessarily be heeding it.
Anywhere the Kings' coach goes -- grocery store, restaurant and certainly Sacramento's home arena -- he may run into the legions of Jimmer Fredette loyalists who aren't always fans of the way he has handled their favorite player.
"I'll see somebody with a Jimmer shirt on and they'll say, 'Hey, coach, play Jimmer! We're coming to see Jimmer,' " said Smart, who replaced Paul Westphal seven games into the season and recently had his contract extended through 2012-13. "He has a huge fan following, and I just say, 'Hey, guys, he's going to be a good pro.'
"We've just got to let it simmer. He's simmering, and he'll come out and be a player."
They're simmering too, though, fuming over a rookie season that hasn't been nearly as much fun as they'd envisioned. This is the unsavory version of Jimmer mania, a different kind of phenomenon that is giving a whole new meaning to March madness for the Fredette faithful.
A year after the BYU sensation took his Cougars to the Sweet 16 and captivated the basketball world with his thrilling play, Fredette has hardly been sensational. His playing time has been sporadic, with an average of 18.7 minutes per game (during which he has averaged 7.4 points, 1.9 assists and 1.2 turnovers), 20 games with 15 minutes or fewer and four games with no minutes at all. His trademark shooting has been spotty; he is hitting 37.7 percent from three-point range but only 38.4 percent overall, the latter mark putting him 16th among the 20 rookies who qualify.
Add in the fact that a 5-foot-9 rookie who was the last pick in the draft (three-year Washington star Isaiah Thomas) has seized the starting point guard role that the 10th pick would surely love to have, and this is hardly the start that Fredette or his fans had hoped for. Some of them boo at home games when he doesn't play as much as they'd like. Others phone in their grievances.
"The first time he didn't play [on Feb. 2 against Portland], people were calling the paper and pitching their theories," said Jason Jones, the Kings' beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. "People don't want to believe that he might not be ready to play. They want to believe Keith has it in for him."
The salty swell of support peaked on Feb. 21, when Fredette's brother and roommate, T.J., saw Jimmer glued to the bench for 48 minutes in a game at Miami and tweeted, "Can we please get rid of this interim coach who should be an assistant at best and bring in a real head coach." Jimmer quickly apologized on behalf of his brother, who subsequently deleted the tweet and also issued an apology. Smart had a candid moment of his own on March 8, defending his use of Fredette while saying, "If everybody in the world would just leave me alone and let me develop this kid, he's going to be OK."
It's tough to blame Smart for growing tired of the point-guard questions, especially when Thomas has been having one of the most unexpected and impressive seasons of any NBA rookie. The boo-birds have gone quiet lately, as the Kings (17-30) have won three of four and seven of 15 after a 10-22 start.
But as if the Fredette fallout weren't enough to deal with for Smart, he now has the unwelcome distinction of being the coach who missed on Jeremy Lin. Before Lin, born and bred in the Bay Area, emerged in New York, the undrafted Harvard product played just 29 games as a Golden State rookie under Smart last year while making two trips to the NBA Development League. Fans would call for him to play late in games, then go wild in the rare times when he actually did. (Lin, it should be noted, struggled on many occasions.) Smart also was criticized for his handling of Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, a factor in his firing, according to owner Joe Lacob.
Smart, however, has the organizational support now that was lacking before, meaning he'll stand firm in his belief that unconventional point guards like Fredette must be given time to grow before they're handed the keys to a team. He had to do it at Indiana University while learning from Bobby Knight, who persuaded him to ditch the high-scoring ways of his community-college days to yield to Hoosiers star Steve Alford en route to their 1987 national championship. He did it in the pros, too. As the second-round pick's brief NBA stint was ending, then-Spurs coach Larry Brown advised him to "work on your point-guard skills," something Smart did during a 10-year career in which he played in the Continental Basketball Association, World Basketball League and overseas.
The uncomfortable dynamics surrounding Smart and Fredette don't appear to have affected their relationship. They both preach patience, all while detailing the finer points of their shared goal. And the silver lining for those who are convinced that this pairing is doomed? Smart still sees Fredette as the long-term point guard of the Kings' future. Just not yet -- the starting job belongs to a popular, lesser-known rookie who has outshined Fredette.
Thomas -- who was signed to a deal with two guaranteed seasons and likely a third based on incentives -- is the consensus fan favorite on and off the court. His local celebrity spiked recently when he accepted an invite from Sacramento Mayor and former NBA point guard Kevin Johnson to sit in on a key city council meeting related to the team's proposed new arena. Thomas was the only Kings player in attendance, watching for five hours.
He has made believers out of his teammates with his bulldog play and edgy demeanor. Former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans was moved from the backcourt to small forward in part to make room in the lineup for Thomas, who has averaged 14.6 points (on 48.9 percent shooting) and five assists in his 18 starts.
"Isaiah has a chip on his shoulder," Kings forward Jason Thompson said. "He's the last pick in the draft, obviously has talent, isn't the tallest guy in the league. He just shows heart and determination, and has the mentality of a pass-first point guard."
Sacramento's love affair with Thomas raises a natural question about whether Fredette is concerned about the fit with the Kings.
"I don't think so," Fredette said when asked if he lost any confidence in the long-term outlook with the team. "I'm just here trying to play to the best of my abilities with the time that I get, to help this team progress and help this team win.
"We're a young team, but we have a lot of talent. So we'll see what happens in the future."
While Fredette gained respect for his work ethic and humility from the beginning, his quiet ways and the enormity of his fame have posed challenges. Whereas the fearless Thomas is routinely seen barking at his teammates when they don't execute to his liking, Fredette, as center DeMarcus Cousins pointed out, often looks at the bench in search of approval from the coaching staff. Smart, in essence, was convinced that Fredette and the team would suffer if he got too much responsibility early.
"His team doesn't trust him yet," Smart said. "That's a big weight for a guy to be on the floor trying to play through something, and the team doesn't respect him yet. Now once that player is strong enough to carry himself and be on the floor and be productive, you start to see the confidence from his team now coming to his side.
"Earlier in the season, they weren't feeling that because, quote-unquote, there's still a little jealousy in the air. Here comes a guy who's high profile, [and] it has nothing to do with the player. But he's coming into the team, has been marketed [by] the team, and everyone else on the outside sees that, and players hear that too. But the player may not be ready for what he's getting ready to face."
Fredette's defense remains his most glaring weakness, but coaching have noticed his recent willingness to take more charges. Offensively, the adjustment from a do-it-all talent to role player has been a jarring one.
"He's used to resetting plays in college on a 35-second shot clock, being the starter on a play and the finisher," Smart said. "Now you've got to be the starter, get rid of the ball and wait for it to come to you again.
"As our team grows and gets stronger, position by position, it's only going to help him. But until the team grows and becomes stronger, he's going to still be in that gray area as a point guard in the NBA."
Thus, Fredette is experiencing an identity crisis of sorts. Because he's so focused on showing his willingness and ability to find his teammates, he often ignores the green light to fire away.
"All the coaches and players want him to shoot it every time he touches the ball," Kings assistant Bobby Jackson said. "But for him, he's a basketball player. He feels like he has to get his teammates involved. And that's a good thing, but when you're out there to score, we want you to score. He has to realize that.
"Especially when it's not like college, where you have 40 minutes to get your shots up. ... Whenever you do get [playing time], you've got to be aggressive and make something happen for you and your team."
Fredette has his own outlook on his situation, of course. His debut NBA season is eerily similar to his freshman year with the Cougars, when he averaged just 18.5 minutes and seven points while shooting 40.7 percent. The BYU blueprint, he said, has helped him stay confident.
"It's been less challenging than people think," he said. "When I came into BYU my first year, it was almost the exact same thing. And you have to bide your time, work as hard as you can every single day in practice, and try to get the trust of your coaching staff and your teammates so that they know that when you get on the floor, you're going to perform and you're going to perform well.
"[Smart] thinks that I can be a very, very good point guard in this league, a guy who's obviously a scorer but who also can get guys involved."
There have been some glimpses of promise. Fredette averaged 16.5 points in four straight games in late January, only to not play in two of the next three games. Smart often goes away from him because of defensive mismatches, and the Kings' guard-heavy rotation (Thomas, Evans, Marcus Thornton) is partly to blame as well. The lockout-shortened season hasn't helped, either, as Fredette sorely needed a chance to have the expectations established and the Kings' system set in his mind.
"Circumstance is everything; it really is," Fredette said. "Who you get drafted by, what type of system you're playing for. It's difficult for anybody with a shortened training camp. And then with a coaching change, that's a tough transition for our whole team.
"But I'm always confident in my abilities, and you have to be to be a great player. Just because I'm not getting a ton of minutes or I miss a couple of shots, or some things haven't gone my way in some games, I stay confident."
Even with Fredette's limited playing time, some of the buzz he created in Provo, Utah, has survived the trip to Sacramento.
"Sometimes when I make three-point shots, they still go crazy here -- which is good," Fredette said. "It's great to hear. It's still kind of taken on a life of its own, and it's fun to be able to make a shot and hear the crowd go crazy. You get energy off of that."
It just doesn't happen nearly often enough -- for him or his passionate fans.
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