You're an NBA general manager. Do you spend a lottery pick on a high-scoring college folk hero who also happens to fit the historic profile of a first-round bust?
Romano's Macaroni Grill is a nondescript joint, a chain restaurant tucked into a strip mall on the edge of downtown Provo. Its most famous regular is the now famously nondescript Jimmer, the 6'2", 195-pound kid in his mesh shorts and plain black T-shirt. But here, Jimmer Fredette might as well be Brigham Young himself. Cooks peek out from the kitchen. Conversations stop as patrons crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the former BYU star. Fredette makes his reservations under a pseudonym because, as his p.r. rep Kate Foley says, "servers would be fighting over who would get his table. It would be mayhem."
On a warm afternoon in early June, Fredette ambles towards the back of the restaurant, oblivious. By now the attention has grown to such an absurd level that he has become numb to it. Men stop him and ask him to autograph anything from a napkin to a wrench. (Yes, a wrench.) Women stick babies in his arms and snap photos. He receives four or five requests a week to speak at local businesses through Facebook, on Twitter or from people simply stopping him on the street. He has been praised by President Obama as "unbelievable," hailed by Kevin Durant as "the best scorer in the world" and had a song parody (Teach Me How to Jimmer) written in his honor. Jimmermania is still going strong, and it's coming soon to an NBA city near you.
But which one?
June 19, 2011
In a draft loaded with question marks, Fredette is one of the biggest. He has been slotted in some mock drafts as high as No. 7—SI has him penciled in at No. 12 (next page)—yet one Western Conference executive says, "It wouldn't surprise me if he fell into the 20s." Fredette's Maravichian game allowed him to dominate in college—he averaged 28.9 points and was named the Associated Press Player of the Year last season—but NBA general managers have their doubts. "Can he be your primary ballhandler?" asked an Eastern Conference G.M. "Can he get his shot off over longer, bigger athletes? Can he defend them? These are all legitimate questions."
Finding a current NBA player to compare Fredette with isn't easy. "I've thought about it a lot," says Celtics G.M. Danny Ainge, himself a former BYU star. "I don't think there is one." One exec said Fredette reminded him of a "mini Kyle Korver." Another said he played like Warriors guard Stephen Curry. Fredette offers his own (ambitious) comparisons. "Deron Williams and Steve Nash," says Fredette. "I'm not saying I'm as good. But I'm similar in size to Deron and I can play up-tempo, use ball screens well, shoot from outside, use my crossover, get to the basket and finish strong. And like Nash, I can get into the lane and finish over guys with awkward angle shots."
By all accounts Fredette has looked good in workouts. At the NBA predraft camp in May, Fredette pushed up more bench-press reps than any other point guard, had a faster time than fellow point guards—and lottery locks—Brandon Knight and Kemba Walker in the lane agility drill and finished fractions of a second behind Knight and Walker in the three-quarter-court sprint. At his workout in Indiana, Fredette made 82% of his unguarded three-pointers. In New York, team officials expressed surprise at his athleticism. In Sacramento it was his ballhandling that stood out. "He has an NBA jump shot," says an Eastern Conference personnel scout. "He will come off somebody's bench next season and be able to score."
Indeed, many of the criticisms have started to wash away. He's not a lockdown defender, says a team official from one of Fredette's workouts, but "he's a lot better than we thought." He's not a natural playmaker, says another official, but "he makes good reads and is underrated as a passer." The trend toward more two-small-guard systems (like the Mavericks') should make Fredette's transition to the NBA easier. "I don't see him as someone who has to have the ball to score," says a Western Conference G.M. "He just has to be able to run into shots, and I think he will be able to do that."
Fredette says he can play in any system but clearly understands which ones suit him best, and that showed in the teams he chose to work out for: Phoenix, Indiana and Sacramento play up-tempo, and New York's offense is heavy on pick-and-rolls. "He's smart," says the G.M. "He has to go to a team that is going to allow him to play to his strengths. A team that accepts his limitations. Not ignore them, accept them. And he has to have a coach who has a tremendous belief in him and will stick with him through the tough times."
Hanging loosely on Fredette's left wrist is a blue wristband with an NBA logo on it. A cousin gave it to him before the start of the season, a reminder, Fredette says, "that it's time to go to work." When BYU's season ended, Fredette passed on offers to attend NBA boot camps around the country in favor of staying close to home. In Provo, Fredette works out six days a week, often twice a day, with his uncle Lee Taft, a conditioning coach who has been his personal trainer since elementary school. Former Arizona star Miles Simon is around to work on basketball moves. For competition, Taft brings in NBA veterans Rodney Carney and Britton Johnsen.
The Jazz have two of the first 12 picks in this month's draft, and Fredette is hoping he is one of them. The pressure of playing in his backyard, of moving Jimmermania just 45 miles down Interstate 15, doesn't faze him. "You can't be scared of the moment," Fredette says. "You have to shrink the moment, expect to play great and then remember it's not the end of the world if you don't."
Wherever Fredette ends up, he knows he will face skeptics. The landscape is littered with former college scorers who washed out as first-round draft picks—Adam Morrison, Troy Bell and Dajuan Wagner, to name a few—and many expect that in a few years, Fredette will be wearing an Olympiakos jersey. It's a challenge he openly relishes. "I don't hold grudges," says Fredette. "I use it as fuel. People can say what they want. I know that when I'm playing my game, I will succeed at any level."