LAS VEGAS — The Thomas & Mack Center frequently staged Jimmer Fredette’s collegiate sharpshooting spectacular. Fredette poured in 39 points at UNLV on Jan. 5, 2011. For his final act, he scorched New Mexico for a career-high 52 in the Mountain West Conference championship that March. The crowd grew delirious as each Fredette crossover blended into a stepback three-pointer. “We played in that arena a ton,” Fredette now says with a smile as he sits leisurely in the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel. “It’s a good place for me.”
Five years later, the Vegas audience still hungers for a taste of Jimmer Mania, only now he’s merely a member of the Nuggets’ Summer League contingent and one of hundreds of players clawing for an NBA roster spot. “We made it to the five and a half minute mark before I got my first, ‘Put in Jimmer!’” says Nuggets assistant coach Micah Nori. Fredette emerged from Nori’s bench in Denver’s first game on Friday, delivering four points and six assists with zero turnovers; his team-high +12 plus-minus indicative of his veteran presence. “He really came in and calmed the game down and really turned the basketball game for us,” Nori said.
Denver is the latest chapter of Fredette’s professional odyssey. His career began as part of a three-team, eight-player trade on draft night, after all. Fredette’s multi-year stint in Sacramento concluded when the Kings waived him in February 2014. He finished the season with Chicago, spent all of 2014–15 with the New Orleans Pelicans, but failed to stick with the Spurs, Pelicans once again, and Knicks this past season. Fredette did torch the D-League with New York’s affiliate in Westchester, however, scoring 21.1 points per game on 41.1% shooting from beyond the arc. He secured the D-League’s All-Star Game MVP, alas, “That’s not exactly where you want to be,” Fredette says. “People don’t necessarily strive to play in the D-League.”
Fredette is competing in Las Vegas to prove, once and for all, the curtain has closed on his solo act. Fredette’s perimeter yo-yoing, lulling defenders to sleep before stinging them with a long-range triple, didn’t transfer from BYU to the pros. “I think what he’s realized is, ‘Ok, if I’m not scoring, what can I do to help my team?’” says Mike Malone, Denver’s head coach who led Sacramento during Fredette’s third season. Fredette dished 200 assists during his 40 games (5 per night) with Westchester last season, compared to 323 through his 235 career NBA outings.
He has spent the last four off-seasons in Littleton, Colo., living with his Colorado-native wife just 25 minutes away from downtown Denver. Each summer, the Nuggets have opened their practice facility doors to the sharpshooter while he’s primarily worked out at Chauncey Billups’s co-owned D1 Sports Fitness. Billups, along with head trainer Nick Graham, has aided Fredette’s progression into a playmaker. “He’s really helped me in my screen-and-rolls situations, going through progressions, different things you can do off of it,” Fredette says. Despite limited athleticism, Billups masterfully manipulated defenses through high-ball screens.
“When you’re coming off a screen, and especially to get other players open, if they’re hedging screens, come at your guy, really come at the big guy, give him a nice little shoulder,” Fredette leans over his arm rest for emphasis, “reverse pivot and it opens up the floor to be able to see the whole floor.”
It’s a technique he used on Friday to fire a cross-court pass into Emmanuel Mudiay’s shooting pocket on the weak-side wing. Fredette found Mudiay on an array of pretty touches passes as well and made plays in the mid-range once defenders ran him off the three-point line. “That means that you have a high IQ and you’re a non mistake player,” Malone says.
Fredette must also overcome his well-documented defensive struggles to reclaim his place in the league. Substandard lateral quickness has plagued him in the past, something he’s attempted to remedy with hours of 1-on-1 at D1. “It’s just you vs. the guy out there and the whole court, so you gotta stay in front of him,” Fredette says. Pelicans player development coach Fred Vinson guided Fredette’s defensive progression during his full season in New Orleans.
“I would get out on the floor with him, have him do zig-zag drills, try to turn me, try to turn me, try to turn me,” Vinson says. “The other thing was the towel drill, having him have the towel around his neck so it takes his hands out of playing defense and now it’s more about moving his feet.”
With New Orleans, Fredette shot only 9-for-48, 18.8%, during 50 games in 2014–15, an inconsistency Vinson theorizes may result from Fredette releasing his looks at the apex of his jump. Not only does that technique become more difficult as legs tire throughout a game, but it allows precious extra seconds for defenders to close out on his shots.
Yet Fredette managed to regain his deadly stroke in Westchester and it continued through his first three games in Las Vegas, as he shot 7-of-16 from beyond. “I’ve always been a good shooter. I can shoot the basketball, I can score the basketball. That’s why I’m in the position I’m in,” he says. It’s a craft Fredette honed while his older brother T.J. fired balls at him in their backyard. “He’d throw balls at the rim, he would shake the backboard, come up from behind me, say something in my ear,” Fredette says. “Different things he’s always done to try and distract me while I’m shooting and keep focused on the rim.”
Fredette, now 27, is far away from the backyard and knows the clock is ticking. On top of his defensive and playmaking developments, Fredette has incorporated a smoother mid-range game, full of deadly floaters he once lacked. “You just gotta keep grinding, keep knocking on the door and just try to get someone to answer,” says former BYU teammate Brandon Davies. The door is still cracked open for Fredette. Was his Summer League performance enough to kick it wide open?