Before he had become a one-name basketball phenom, a late-night TV and Internet sensation, Jimmer Fredette planned to pass on his senior season and stay in the 2010 NBA draft. The New Jersey Nets were inclined to take him in the late 20s, sources said, but Fredette sought a guarantee and the Nets' past president, Rod Thorn, couldn't bring himself to make the promise.
"Some executives will lie to a kid and take someone else that slips down to that spot," one close associate said. "But Rod would never do that."
The Nets had gone into draft day with the 27th pick, and a season of scouting him – including a private workout in East Rutherford – had them sold. Thorn had two scouts pushing him hard on Fredette. Once the New Orleans Hornets snatched Iowa State's Craig Brackins(notes) before the Nets could complete a trade to move up, the irony turned out that Thorn would've been free to pick Fredette.
Truth be told, Fredette will never regret a return to BYU for his senior season. This is the best season of his basketball life, and nothing that'll happen in the NBA could ever surpass the way he's commanding the sport. Nearly every NBA team had a representative – including general managers Pat Riley of the Miami Heat, R.C. Buford of the San Antonio Spurs, Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets and Bryan Colangelo of the Toronto Raptors – to watch him drop 43 points on No. 4 San Diego State on Wednesday night in Provo, Utah.
Only Kevin Durant(notes) topped him that night – hitting for 47 points – and as soon as the Oklahoma City Thunder's overtime victory ended, here were the first words out of Durant's Twitter account: "Jimmer Fredette is the best scorer in the world!!"
From everywhere on the floor, Fredette is a relentless, ferocious scorer. His range stretches far beyond the 3-point line, and his deftness with the ball – not to mention his toughness – gets him to the basket and the free-throw line. He's scoring in the 30s, the 40s on some nights – averaging a nation-best 27.4 points per game – and perhaps it's so amazing because people just don't see that coming from a 6-foot-2 Mormon out of upstate New York. There's no debating Fredette's greatness as a collegiate scorer, but most fascinating is projecting what kind of pro player he'll be.
Conversations with multiple NBA general managers and scouts who've tracked Fredette's progress result in one consensus: Almost no one agrees on anything. Perhaps there's something about a white guard with American roots which causes such prejudging, stereotyping and skepticism to abound. Perhaps there's something about a white guard with American roots which causes such rooting interest and overhype. People are forever trying to pin Fredette into a neat little comparative box. Most agree he could top out in the late lottery around 12 or 13 but probably won't last past the mid-20s.
It's funny how Fredette draws comparisons to Gonzaga's Adam Morrison(notes) and Duke's J.J. Redick(notes). They don't play so much like him, but they sure are white guys. Thirty years ago, the best player in BYU history, Danny Ainge, would've been the highest-drafted player in school history had he told NBA teams he preferred pro basketball over pro baseball. He was a different athlete than Fredette – bigger, faster and more suited for the pro game. For whatever it was worth, there was no shortage of comparable players in the NBA.
"I was a guy who could run, had good speed, and never in my college career did anyone question my athleticism," Ainge said. "If I wasn't playing baseball, I would've certainly been one of the top five or six picks. I don't think anyone in the NBA was thinking about that with me or Doug Collins. We were bigger. We were athletic."
For all the comparisons to Fredette, perhaps the one that NBA executives most make is with Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry(notes). The former Davidson star was a one-man wrecking crew, small, slight and full of flair, pushing 30 points a game outside of the power conferences. Several executives and scouts believe the Fredette-Curry contrast is a good way to measure BYU's star, while several others don't believe Jimmer belongs in his class.
"An insult to Curry's talent," one Eastern Conference personnel executive said.
Out West, there's an NBA scout who's closely followed Fredette's career. He's watched him courtside multiple times over the past couple seasons, and flatly said: "I'm telling you, he's better than Stephen Curry.
"Curry was always taking difficult, off-balance shots because he couldn't create space like Fredette can for himself. Plus, I don't think his team is any good. He's doing this himself. He's having one of the most remarkable seasons any college player's had in the last 10 or 15 years.
"If this kid played in the ACC or Big East, they'd be building a statue for him."
A Western Conference GM who has personally scouted Fredette this season, called him a player who belongs in the bottom half of the first round: "He doesn't contribute in enough areas of the game besides scoring for me; does not set up teammates well or rebound; and is obviously lacking a defensive position."
Nevertheless, the GM said, "He can score at our level. His ability to quickly change directions with power and rise up on balance for his shot is special."
For all Fredette's wondrous scoring ability, most have trouble seeing him as much more than a backup point guard – and some doubt even that.
"He's going to have to defend Chris Paul(notes) and Derrick Rose(notes) and Rajon Rondo(notes) in the NBA," another Western Conference GM said. "He's played his whole life with the ball in his hands, and it's in his hands 80 percent of the time now. He doesn't do much without the ball. We all know he can pass and loves to score, but what team will he fit into that's going to let him play his game and be such a defensive liability?
"Over his four years, he's averaged just over one foul a game. That's got to tell you something right there. And he's probably getting called for a charge maybe once a game, so half of that total is probably not even on the defensive end. I mean, how can you never get into foul trouble? Hey, with five minutes left in the game, you kind of got to get down into a defensive stance and get a stop, don't you? Get a loose ball, a deflection, a rebound. He's just a scorer.
"And it's debatable whether he's a better scorer than Curry was," the GM added. "Curry had more juice. He had a sneaky quickness. Jimmer can get by with his strength and quickness with the guys covering him in college, but against NBA defenders? Curry is the closest comparable player, but Jimmer isn't Mark Price or Steve Nash(notes). He will never be one of those guys."
All these doubts could be playing out on the New Jersey Nets' bench this season, but Jimmer Fredette could get just one guarantee this season: That staying in school would bring him the time of his life. BYU has never been to a Final Four, and maybe he's the star to take the Cougars there 30 years after Ainge had gone end to end to beat Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament.
Whatever happens, basketball will never be better for The Jimmer, a college phenom with a cult following and one magical name.
- Jimmer Fredette