INDIANAPOLIS — Pressure? Yes, Roy Hibbert feels some.
Players who get maximum contract extensions typically do.
But with or without the wealthy deal he signed during the offseason, the fifth-year pro still would push himself to perform at an All-Star level.
He knows no other way to approach his job.
“I’ve always wanted more responsibility since I came into the league. I always feel pressure,” said Hibbert, a fifth-year pro regarded by the Indiana Pacers as the cornerstone for their championship ambitions.
The organization made that crystal clear in July when it matched the four-year, $58 million free agent offer Hibbert received from the Portland Trail Blazers.
Cognizant of the fact the Pacers and their fans expect a high dividend for the steep investment, Hibbert has no intention to disappoint.
Coming off the first All-Star appearance of his career, the 7-foot-2, 260-pound center is determined not only to prove his value but to do it in the context of advancing the Pacers’ postseason designs.
Arguably the NBA’s most improved team last year, the Pacers — who open training camp today — had the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. They lost a grueling second-round series against the eventual champion Miami Heat. Indiana jumped to a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series before succumbing to the exploits of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Hibbert is confident the Pacers, who return every starter from a year ago, are positioned for a championship run. Players have been working out together for the past three weeks in preparation for camp, a clear sign they are serious about taking the next step.
“We know who the starting five is. We worked extremely hard this summer. We’ve been working out as a team the past three weeks,” Hibbert said. “We’ve had like 12 guys in the gym. I hear about Miami or New York getting together, and it’s all over ESPN.
“We’re the best-kept secret. We’ve been working for a while.”
Hibbert, who averaged career-highs of 12.8 points and 8.8 rebounds last season, rejoins a starting lineup of Danny Granger, David West, Paul George and George Hill. By keeping Hibbert a part of it, coach Frank Vogel also is optimistic about the Pacers’ chances of contending for the East title.
“Nobody works harder than Roy, so we just expect to continue to fine-tune his low-post moves and be as an efficient scorer as possible,” Vogel said. “I think he really grew last year in terms of passing out of double-teams, making teammates better. Defensively, he really became a dominant rim-protector for us last.
“Roy puts a lot of pressure on himself every year. I understand that he just signed a big contract, so that (added pressure is) certainly a concern. He’s aware of it. He wants to do well, but he can’t try to change himself too much. He’s aware of that concern. I don’t think it will be a problem.”
Neither does Hibbert, whose desire all along was to return to the Pacers. He regards his new contract as a just reward for his efforts and proof positive that a host of teams erred in overlooking him in the 2008 draft, where lesser-accomplished players like Michael Beasley (No. 2 overall), O.J. Mayo (No.3), Joe Alexander (No. 8), Jerryd Bayless (No. 11), Brandon Rush (No. 13) and Marreese Speights (No. 16) were chosen ahead of him.
“To tell you the truth, it was never really about the money for me,” said Hibbert, who spent the entire offseason working out in Indianapolis. “It was the fact that, in the back of my mind, I wanted to be with the Pacers. But at the same time, I was thinking back to my draft class and the people that were ahead of me. I really thought I was better than those guys. What I was given this summer was a statement for my hard work.
“I’m truly dedicated to the team, and I want to see the team go further. I’ll never stop working.”