Jimmer hopes second chance becomes first opportunity
CHICAGO -- On a dry-erase board in the visiting locker room at the United Center, Memphis coach Dave Joerger scribbled question marks next to the name "Jimmer Fredette." It was a couple hours before the Grizzlies would face the Bulls on Friday night, and Joerger didn't know what to expect from Chicago's newest acquisition.
Fredette had played a total of six minutes in three games since signing as a free agent with Chicago, and none in the Bulls' victory at Detroit two nights earlier. So there was a good chance Fredette might not play at all. "You just don't know," Joerger said. "Hopefully he won't play well." Fredette, it turned out, didn't get off the bench in Chicago's 85-77 loss, and he logged another DNP-CD on Sunday when the Bulls came back to beat the two-time defending champion Heat in overtime.
Chicago's goal in signing Fredette to a prorated portion of the veteran's minimum was to acquire an offensive spark, someone who could inject life into the Bulls' occasionally stagnant half-court offense. The Bulls, who have one of the NBA's best records (23-10) since Jan. 1, have emerged as a contender for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference behind a defense that ranks second in points allowed per possession and opponent field-goal percentage.
The offense, however, remains largely a work in progress. Only the lowly 76ers have posted a lower offensive efficiency this season, and the Bulls also rank near the bottom in effective field-goal percentage (which adjusts for three-point shots) and true shooting percentage (which factors in free throws).
Even in the best-case scenario, Fredette would help the Bulls make just marginal gains in those categories. But the former Sacramento King has always shown he can do at least one thing really well -- shoot -- and that makes him a potentially valuable pickup.
"His shooting -- I think he can help us a lot," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said.
In three seasons with the Kings and Bulls, Fredette has shot 40.1 percent from three-point range. His statistics are up across the board this season: The 25-year-old guard is posting career highs in Player Efficiency Rating, true shooting percentage, effective field-goal percentage and win shares per 48 minutes, among other categories.
Fredette has also averaged an impressive 1.41 points per possession on spot-up jumpers (on only 34 plays), according to Synergy Sports, and shot 50 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, according to SportVU tracking data, one of the top marks in the league among players who have scored at least 50 points on such attempts.
"He has the one skill that is as good as anyone in the league: He can shoot the ball," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Fredette, the 10th pick in the 2011 draft, was never able to carve out a significant role in the Kings' backcourt. An NBA work stoppage wiped away most of his first training camp, limiting Fredette to only a condensed period of time to acclimate to his new team.
Coach Paul Westphal was fired just seven games into Fredette's first season, and new coach Keith Smart eventually tabbed fellow rookie Isaiah Thomas, the 60th pick in 2011, as the team's starting point guard. In his second season, Sacramento signed veteran Aaron Brooks, yet another obstacle to playing time for Fredette in a crowded backcourt that also included Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton. And as Thomas thrived, Fredette withered on the bench.
Last summer, the Kings -- run by new general manager Pete D' Alessandro, who replaced Geoff Petrie in June 2013 -- acquired point guard Greivis Vasquez and selected Ben McLemore in the first round and Ray McCallum in the second. (Vasquez, an early-season starter over Thomas, was subsequently traded to Toronto in the Rudy Gay deal in December.) Drafting two guards gave the impression that the Kings didn't consider Fredette part of their future, and when the team declined to pick up his fourth-year option by the Oct. 31 deadline, it was clear that his time in Sacramento was coming to an end. The only question was whether the Kings would trade him, opt for a buyout or let him walk at the end of the season.
"At that point, I felt like I probably wouldn't have a career with Sacramento," Fredette said. "You knew it was probably time to move on."
Fredette discussed his options with Dave Rose, his coach at BYU, who helped Fredette become one of the most decorated college players of all time. With ridiculous range and a greener light than most players could even dream of, Fredette delivered multiple 30- and 40-point games. In his senior season, Fredette, the consensus national player of the year, led the country with 28.5 points per game and propelled BYU to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 for the first time in three decades.
Fredette was the most fascinating player in college basketball; his games were appointment viewing even for East Coast residents forced to sacrifice sleep to catch BYU's late-night tip-offs. "He's one of the best shooters I've ever seen," Rose said. Fredette was so popular that people took to using "Jimmer" as a verb.
Rose and Fredette talked about teams that would fit him best. Rose, who knows Chicago general manager Gar Forman, endorsed the Bulls because he believed they provided the structure Fredette needed to excel. Rose was also confident that Thibodeau could successfully integrate Fredette, whose defense has been widely panned since he entered the league.
"Everybody wants to talk about [defense] for Jimmer," Rose said. "I think that physically he is very capable of fitting into some type of a system."
More than anything, Fredette was just excited to get a fresh start. "Sometimes that's something a player needs to jump-start his career," Fredette said. When the Kings bought out Fredette's contract, Bulls coaches informed him that they'd been scouting him since his time at BYU. For the first time in a long time, Fredette said, he felt like someone wanted him.
"It feels good to come to a team where guys are like, 'Hey, we've been looking at you for a while. We like your skills, we like how you play, so we want you to be a part of our team,' " Fredette said. "It's awesome -- for the coaching staff and front office to have confidence in you."
Though he's rarely gotten off the bench, Fredette is confident his playing time will increase as he gains a better understanding of the Bulls' defensive schemes. Fredette -- whose only points have come in garbage time in two games -- did not even go through a full practice in his first week with Chicago.
"He's been here a short amount of time," Thibodeau said. "So he's gotta pick things up. We'll see how it unfolds. We like his approach. Each day I think he's gotten more comfortable."
Fredette acknowledges that trying to master a new system on the fly has been a challenge, but he believes his high basketball IQ has eased the learning curve.
"Getting to know the plays and the defensive schemes and the terminology is the toughest thing," he said. "But I think I'm doing a pretty good job."
While the Bulls don't lack for quality on-ball defenders, players can get by in Thibodeau's system simply by understanding the rotations and angles needed to funnel opposing ball handlers into unfavorable positions. It's a defense reliant on help, and with quality defenders such as guard Kirk Hinrich, swingman Jimmy Butler, forward Taj Gibson and center Joakim Noah as teammates, Fredette will have plenty of it when he takes the floor.
"This is a very team-defense-oriented scheme," Fredette said. "They've got a bunch of guys that play really hard and they talk out their defense well. As long as you know the schemes and know where to turn the guy, I think you're going to be OK."
No one would mistake Fredette for a plus defender -- a mountain of statistical proof indicates otherwise -- but given the success under Thibodeau of such limited defenders as D.J. Augustin, Marco Belinelli, Kyle Korver and Nate Robinson, it's not unreasonable to at least be optimistic about Fredette's chances of catching on in Chicago.
The remainder of the regular season will serve as something of an audition for Fredette, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. But with the way the Bulls have played of late -- they have won 11 of their last 14 games -- there's no telling when he could crack the rotation.
So what kind of impact will he have? Optimally, Fredette will provide the Bulls some extra scoring in a potential second-round playoff series against the Pacers or Heat. But before Thibodeau can trust him with vital playoff minutes, Fredette will need to prove himself in the regular season. At least one Bull thinks it's not a matter of if Fredette will play well, but when.
"Thibs just has to give him a chance," Boozer said.