Spencer Hawes has been here before. Two years ago, the Sixers’ seven-footer opened up a contract season with the best streak of play in his career.
How good was Hawes? The big man nearly had a triple-double in the season opener in Portland and notched four double-doubles in the first six games of the season. In one of those games, a 16-point, 14-rebound effort in a rout over Detroit, the fans at the Wells Fargo Center chanted his name.
Hawes was so important to the Sixers’ chances in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season that the team went 12-2 during the first half in games he played. The problem was keeping Hawes on the floor.
With the compressed schedule that season, Hawes was caught in a vicious cycle. He got injured, tried to return quickly and then got hurt again and again. In the second half of the season, the Sixers went 10-13 in games where Hawes played and his scoring average dipped from 10.5 points to 9.0 per game.
Hawes was so worried about coming back from injuries to get a contract for the next year(s), that it played some mind tricks on him.
“Last time around I fed into all the contract-year stuff and psyched myself out during the offseason and then you end up realizing that it is what it is,” Hawes said.
That was then. These days, Hawes has been as consistent as they come for the 5-7 Sixers. He has appeared in 129 consecutive games (including postseason), leads the team in player efficiency rating (the measure of per-minute production) at 20.2 and three-pointers (20) and is third in the NBA with seven double-doubles.
At age 25, with seven years in the NBA, Hawes could be a popular player in the summer during free agency.
Finally, Hawes is coming into his own.
“The cliché is big guys always develop later,” Hawes said after practice last Thursday. “I don't know if that's necessarily the case, but I guess it was with me.”
It’s not easy, though. The Sixers have dropped three in a row and five out of their last six following a 3-0 start to the season. And while Hawes is posting strong numbers (15 points, 10 rebounds, 50 percent shooting), some might wonder if it is the typical good numbers/bad team scenario.
However, coach Brett Brown says Hawes has contributed in ways not seen in the box score or even by the fans. As the oldest player in uniform for the Sixers -- Hawes is two months older than Thad Young -- the center has taken on a leadership role on the team. Hawes has reached out to many of the new players on the team, inviting them to dinner or just chatting about life in the NBA.
Things like that go far, Brown said.
“He's been really, really good for me in a bunch of ways,” Brown said. “And I think that his on-court performance speaks for itself.”
There could be a little give-and-take with the center and the coach, too. Brown has installed an up-tempo and running offense in which Hawes has been in position to get buckets by running the floor. He also has been encouraged to step into three-pointers when trailing the break.
In fact, Hawes typically ends each practice with a three-point shooting drill. Hitting the long ball at a 20 for 43 clip, it seems to be working.
“The system we run, if you get out and run as a big and rebound and run, you get rewarded,'” Hawes said. “I’ve been in a position to space the floor more than I've done in the past and [Brown] let me play out there.”
The biggest part of his improved game, Hawes says, is comfort. The big man finally understands his role and Brown allows him to play to his skill set. Hawes isn’t necessarily a banger, but he’s pulled down at least nine rebounds in nine games, blocked six shots in another and 62 percent of his shots have come inside of 15 feet.
“It’s finally having that comfort zone,” Hawes said. “The chemistry of the guys around me and comfort zone of being able to play to my strengths and not worry so much about the weaknesses. I just go out there and take it in stride.”
That’s how he’s taking his latest contract year, too.