Jimmer-mania hits Sacramento
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The sign looked out of place, as if some Cleveland fan had hopped on the wrong flight and found himself rooting for the recovery effort of an entirely different team.
"The New King James."
Yet Kyrie Irving was nowhere to be found and this had nothing to do with the Cavaliers' post-LeBron James era. This was all about James Fredette, aka Jimmer Fredette, aka "The Savior of Sacramento."
You had to wonder what was really going through his mind as he stood on that stage inside a crowded mall, the Jimmer-mania surrounding him in the form of nearly a thousand screaming fans and so much scripted hype that surrounded the No. 10 pick. This was just one of his many celebrity stops on the day, the whirlwind first visit bookended by a wild airport scene on Friday and a red-eye flight back to his hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y., late Saturday night.
Fredette looked poised but somewhat pensive through it all, perhaps still processing the fact that there is some serious basketball baggage here that he'll be asked to help carry.
It's been less than two months since this city forced the unlikeliest of overtimes. The Maloof family that owns the team came so close to moving to Anaheim before the NBA powers-that-be directed it back to Sacramento. This is its one last shot now, with a push for the necessary new arena moving forward and a dire need for fan support that waned so dramatically in recent years. Enter Fredette, the BYU product with the cult following who is now at the center of it all.
The sharpshooting dynamo has already made a business impact. Team officials said there was an immediate spike in season-ticket sales and intrigue surrounding the many marketing events that would not have been there if they had taken any other prospect. But the best thing for business is good basketball, and the Kings are well aware they must start winning after these last three dreadful seasons in which they've gone a combined 66-180.
The redeeming part about this seemingly arranged marriage with Fredette, though, is that no one seems to understand the importance of focusing on the game more than the player himself.
"I'm just looking to go in and play basketball," Fredette said Saturday afternoon after his introductory news conference at Power Balance Pavilion. "That's what will keep [the team] here. If you play well, you have a great season, the fans are in the stands and they're excited about it and everything is going well, then that's what's going to keep everything here.
"I don't know too much about the actual situation. I've just heard basically what everyone has heard, that [the team leaving] was a possibility. But we're here now, and now we're just going to look forward to the season, have a great one and see what happens from there."
Make no mistake, Sacramento wasn't the best fit for Fredette's business model. His preferred stops in Utah, New York and Phoenix would all have offered more in the way of sponsorships and exposure. But he agreed to work out for the Kings because he saw them as a good basketball fit, one that became even better suited for his skills when Sacramento sent point guard Beno Udrih to Milwaukee in a three-team trade on draft day that brought veteran small forward John Salmons.
Fredette will have a significant role as a rookie. Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton (a restricted free agent whom the Kings want to re-sign) are likely to start in the backcourt, with Fredette getting a chance to prove that he's more than just a scoring point guard while coming off the bench. And whether the team stays in Sacramento or heads elsewhere after next season, his father, Al, insists that the action between the lines is more important to Jimmer than the bottom line.
"He's so focused on basketball and being a good person that the amount of money that he's going to make isn't really going to make a difference," said Al, who had never been to California until this trip. "I think it's going to be plenty [of money], and it's more important to help other people, to help the community, to help the team, to help the franchise. That's really more important. He personally only needs so much money, and it doesn't bring happiness.
"He's actually more excited to be in place that fits him really well and that's excited about having him than he is about the amount of money. He's more concerned about playing basketball. That's his passion."
Fredette, who spent the last two months trying to convince NBA scouts and executives that he was more athletic, more versatile and more well-rounded than they might have believed, will get the chance to prove it in Sacramento.
"I'm more of a player than just a shooter," Fredette said. "I wanted to be able to show people that. ... It's similar to when I was in college. When I first came in, I was a bench player, a situation guy."
Fredette sees himself as a dangerous blend of Deron Williams and Stephen Curry, and scoffs at the notion that he's the next Adam Morrison, J.J. Redick or even Steve Kerr.
"I'm going to be a point guard, and a guy who handles the ball a lot and can shoot the ball and create for others as well," Fredette said. "Steph Curry was in a similar situation as I was in college, being from a small school [Davidson] and having a lot of hype around him. He's a very good shooter, a good passer. A lot of people doubted him, though, and seeing him come into this league and seeing what he's done ... I think I can be similar to that."
The Maloofs swear this wasn't about marketing, that the business benefits of picking Fredette are merely a well-timed and welcome bonus. Theirs was a love affair that began nearly two years ago, when a friend of the family,
"All of a sudden, there was more media about him and I started hearing more things about him, so I got even more curious," Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof said by phone. "So then this year comes up, and Joe [Gavin's brother and fellow co-owner] and I went and saw him play against San Diego State at San Diego State."
The Maloofs were looking at two draft prospects at that Feb. 26 game who would eventually be on their team's short list. Yet while Aztecs small forward Kawhi Leonard was solid (17 points, 13 rebounds, three steals), Fredette was sensational. He led his No. 7-ranked Cougars to an 80-67 win over No. 4 San Diego State, scoring 25 points (albeit on 8-of-23 shooting overall, 4-of-8 from three-point range) and adding nine assists.
"I tell you, I was impressed," Gavin said. "He's money on the road. It was so loud at this arena that I was like, 'Man, how is this guy going to make his shots?' And he just destroyed them. And then when we saw him in the [Mountain West Conference] tournament [in Las Vegas, where the Cougars fell to San Diego State in the championship game before making a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament] ... he just elevated his whole team."
The Maloofs had weighed this sort of a decision only two years ago. Before drafting Evans out of Memphis en route to his Rookie of the Year campaign, there was a strong push from the team's business side to take Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio. The hope at the time was that Rubio might live up to his hype while bringing much-needed attention to the struggling franchise.
This time around, Kings officials said even privately that they were not feeling the same pressure to select Fredette now as they had then with Rubio. Still, the Maloofs clearly set the tone for a decision that basketball president Geoff Petrie wound up endorsing.
"I don't think [Jimmer's business appeal] played any part, to be honest with you," Gavin said. "We don't bring up marketing to Geoff Petrie. If you bring up a player and you say it'd be great for marketing, what Geoff will tell you is that winning is great for marketing. It really didn't come into play.
"We looked at his talents on the court. We needed a point guard. We needed shooting. I think what everybody realized throughout the playoffs and the Finals this year is that shooting beat defense. I know defense wins championships, but this year the Mavericks had all those shooters and Miami couldn't compete with them.
"I just told Geoff, I said, 'Just get us some shooters. I don't care what you do. Just get us someone who can shoot the darn ball.' Now we've got all these weapons, and our first priority when there's free agency is to re-sign Marcus Thornton. Priority 1A is to get a big-time free agent."
The looming lockout will be quite the buzz kill for the Kings, who can't sell Fredette's jersey until he signs a contract and won't be able to get that done until the league's labor situation is resolved. Fredette and every other player in the league must cease contact with team employees as of July 1 if there is not a new collective bargaining agreement in place.
"If there is a lockout, I'll just go through the normal summer," said Fredette, who will wear No. 7 in the pros because his No. 32 was already taken by veteran Francisco Garcia. "I'll probably be in Glens Falls for a while, and then probably go out to Provo, Utah. They have some great people, some great facilities I can work with and play with my uncle, who's my trainer. We'll see what happens.
"I'll be fine when the lockout comes. I'm going to continue to play basketball, to stay in shape, and that won't be a problem for me."
Jimmer time will eventually come in Sacramento. And while he surely knows he can't save the team from leaving town on his own, his game and his fame certainly don't hurt the Kings' cause.
"We don't see him as the savior," Gavin insisted. "He's just another great piece in our puzzle. But, oh my God, I'll tell you I can't sleep I'm so excited. He has really lifted our family, our franchise. I realized he was popular, but I thought it was more like in Utah. I didn't realize he was popular all over the country. Now it's going to be all over the world. I didn't realize he had that kind of stardom ... It's just incredible."