SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Far away from the NBA’s brightest lights, Jimmer Fredette can walk into a restaurant or grocery store in California’s Central Valley and barely turn a head.
There are still some signs and shouts of “We Want Jimmer!” at Sacramento Kings games, and photo and autograph seekers sprout up sporadically. But that’s here, on the fringe of the league landscape.
Around the nation, there’s no Jimmermania this March.
“It’s definitely not as crazy as last year,” said Fredette, nearing the end of a quiet rookie season. “It’s just a different phase of your life, and I’ve gone through that before.”
Maybe not like this.
A year ago, Fredette swept up the country with big performances in big games that had NBA stars tweeting his name, President Barack Obama mentioning him while filling out his bracket and BYU faithful in a frenzy that reached beyond the quiet Provo campus. He won almost every national award, including The Associated Press’ player of the year honor.
As the former BYU sensation returns to Utah on Friday night to face the Jazz, his popularity outside the Beehive State has dwindled and so has his role on one of the NBA’s worst teams.
“There are not a lot of people who would handle what he has gone through as gracefully as Jimmer,” said his uncle, Lee Taft, who has trained Fredette since he was 5 years old. “Jimmer is just so patient, and he understands his time will come.”
Fredette is still coping with his reshaped reality.
The surprising emergence of 5-foot-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas, the 60th and final pick of last year’s draft out of Washington whom the Kings are touting for Rookie of the Year honors, is one of the biggest reasons Fredette has been buried on the bench. The other is his struggle to adapt to new coach Keith Smart, who took over for the fired Paul Westphal after a 2-5 start, and his demands that Fredette become more than a ball-dominating guard.
The coaching change not only complicated Fredette’s transition — which already included lost offseason workouts, summer league and a full training camp due to the prolonged NBA lockout — it has become the source of ridicule from impatient fans.
That passion peaked Feb. 21, when Fredette’s brother, T.J., became so frustrated that his sibling sat for all 48 minutes at Miami he tweeted, “Can we please get rid of this interim coach who should be an assistant at best and bring in a real head coach.” He later apologized for the remarks.
“Sometimes I have to text Jimmer after games so I feel good,” joked his father, Al Fredette, who will be in Salt Lake City along with scores of family members and friends Friday night. “He handles it a lot better than the rest of us.”
Fredette’s minutes have steadily evaporated.
In his last four games — the ones he has actually played in— Fredette has been on the floor for a combined 24 minutes. He has almost as many games not played (five) as starts (six), the last coming in a loss at Golden State on Jan. 31.
Fredette is averaging 7.8 points and 1.2 assists in about 18 minutes per game while shooting 38 percent from the floor and 37 percent from 3-point range. In a little more than a month, he has morphed into a third-string backup on a Sacramento (17-33) team that is the second worst in the Western Conference.
“The one thing Jimmer needs, is he needs minutes,” Taft said. “Jimmer has always been a point guard. And when a point guard doesn’t have a chance to get into a flow, get the feel of his teammates and make his adjustments on the floor, it’s very difficult.”
While Smart has limited Fredette’s time in favor of others outplaying the rookie, he also understands what the young point guard is going through, maybe more than anyone.
He hears calls for Fredette to play everywhere he goes, from behind the Kings bench to filling up his car at a gas station. He tells every fan — and Fredette — the same thing: be patient.
Smart should know. The former Indiana guard hit “The Shot” that won the Hoosiers the 1987 NCAA title over Syracuse and headed to the NBA with almost impossible expectations.
“You’re making a transition of trying to get everybody else involved while still playing your own game,” Smart said. “When you haven’t done that, the NBA is a tough place to figure that out.”
Given Fredette’s rising stardom a year ago, his slip in Sacramento has been swift and stunning.
BYU coach Dave Rose remembers the dozens of cameras and reporters who swarmed the Cougars when they landed late at night for a game last season against Vermont in Fredette’s hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y., where hundreds of fans surrounded the plane on the tarmac in what became the unofficial start of “Jimmermania.” Another time in San Diego, so many fans crowded a hotel lobby that the team had to sneak in through a back door.
Hundreds also packed Fredette’s arrival at the Sacramento airport last summer after the Kings acquired him in a draft-day trade with Milwaukee as the 10th overall pick. A few thousand showed for a pep rally soon after and Mayor Kevin Johnson even released a statement lauding Fredette’s selection.
“I’ve never coached or played with a player that got as much attention as he did,” said Rose, who believes Fredette’s waning fanfare outside Utah might be a major benefit. “It’s a little bit over the top. If you spend an afternoon with him or a day with him (in Provo), it’s not normal. Everywhere he goes and everywhere he attempts to go, there’s some interruption. The less interruption he has, the more he can focus on his game.”
About 25 NBA general managers called Rose before last year’s draft wondering about Fredette’s athleticism, defense and whether he could go from a shoot-first point man to running an NBA offense that gets everyone involved. All those questions remain.
“Jimmer and I have talked a lot about it. It’s going to be hard for it to happen overnight and a quick situation, but he’s determined and he has a great work ethic,” Rose said.
Setbacks are not exactly new for Fredette.
He struggled early in his BYU career with the style and pace of play. Once his skills started to surface at the end of his freshman season, Rose tailored the offense around the guard, now 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, to allow him to create off the dribble.
That’s a luxury few NBA players earn, and Rose is the first to admit “it’s more on Jimmer” to adjust now. Whether he can might ultimately determine his NBA future.
“Just go out and be yourself regardless,” Fredette said. “Don’t try to go out and do anything differently. Just try to play the same exact way that got you into the NBA. I think that’s what people expect from you. I think I can be a great point guard in this league if I continue to work, and that’s all I can do right now.”