NEW YORK -- There's something very strange going on in the NBA right now.
Kris Humphries, at 28, is having the kind of season that gets guys large free-agent contracts. And nobody seems to be noticing.
Playing for a new coach, in a system requiring far more of him than what the Nets asked of him in Brooklyn, Humphries is putting up a Player Efficiency Rating of nearly 19. He's doubled his block percentage and his assist percentage, cut his turnover percentage, dramatically improved his field-goal percentage around the basket, and is punishing defenders for leaving him alone at mid-range. Oh, and it isn't like he's stopped rebounding, the skill he's carried with him through stints with five separate organizations.
Even the Celtics didn't expect this much from Humphries.
"You know, these guys will tell you, we didn't see it in the preseason," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Humphries during a shootaround at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. "And Kris would tell you that. I think he'd tell you his preseason wasn't his finest, for whatever reason. But he really continued to work. You know, he didn't play for us the first 10 games or so of the year. His attitude never wavered. He got better at the things we were asking him to do. And then he started showing that other stuff, more and more, once he got back in the games. … It's been a pleasant revelation."
It's as if the off-court history, or the litany of organizations who have already decided not to plan around or for Humphries, obscures what people see with Kris Humphries. (Never mind the insanity that a public marriage going awry is somehow more damaging than, let's say, a felony or two.)
This isn't just a fan thing. Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix, who has sources throughout the league, estimated Humphries can expect a contract of between $3 and 5 million annually this coming offseason. For those keeping score at home, that's significantly less than what J.R. Smith received from the Knicks last year.
It's probably worth noting that PER has Humphries 27th in the league among centers and forwards. Even that underrates how effective his total game has been this year, with only Andre Drummond among the group in front of Humphries logging a lower usage rate. The guys ahead of him, and plenty of guys behind him, would be difficult to obtain. That alone should drive his offseason price up, you'd think.
But underestimating Humphries seems to be a common thread in his career. The Jazz drafted him 14th overall in the 2004 draft, but never gave him a chance to start before dealing him to Toronto, where the same thing happened. Dallas shipped him to New Jersey in a deal for a late-career Eduardo Najera. And the primary reason the Celtics brought him in this summer in the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett deal was to make the numbers work.
So maybe the real answer to evaluating Kris Humphries is to forget everything you think you know about him, or as one Celtics writer said with apparent wonder when I mentioned I'd be writing about him, "He's actually been their best player this year!"
That's not to say that even this breakout season has come easily for Humphries.
"It took me a little while to get used to Brad's system," Humphries said as we sat and talked following the shootaround Tuesday. "I'd never really had the ball in my hands out on the floor this much. We have a lot of plays with triple handoffs, bigs making reads for passes, for shots, for post-ups and different stuff."
How Humphries has maximized his role in that offense is a complicated puzzle. The shooting part is notable, not only compared to his down year last season in Brooklyn, but even compared to his two previous seasons in New Jersey. He's historically hovered around 58/59 percent at the rim. This year, he's at 72 percent. And he's rediscovered his perimeter shooting, knocking down 44 percent from outside of 16 feet in two-point range, after hitting 35 percent of those shots last season.
One reason for his improved accuracy, according to Humphries, is his work with longtime NBA assistant Phil Weber in Los Angeles, after he completed his typical immediate postseason workouts of MMA, Pilates and swimming in Miami, then a month in Minnesota with former NBA player Chris Carr, mostly performing drills.
Weber worked with Humphries in the Clippers' facility, doing individual work in the mornings, weightlifting, then participating in games with other players nearby in the afternoons.
"With Phil, he's another level," Humphries said. "You're making 10 in a row, 15 in a row, five in a row on the move. If you go to his workout, you better be focused on making shots and be ready. We had some days we worked on the corner three, even though I don't really shoot it a lot. You gotta make like 10 in a row to get out of the drill," and here, Humphries gives me the "You've got to be kidding me" look he probably gave Weber.
"It's really a mental exercise. It's all about empowering thoughts and positivity. It's never about 'I can't.' It's 'I will,' or 'When I' or 'I'm going to.' I think if you focus on the way you talk, and think, I think you can get a lot of improvement in the way you focus to make shots and approach the game."
Bringing that frame of mind to Stevens' practices has helped Humphries post an assist percentage of 9.5 percent, more than double his rate last season, and a career-high.
"We do a lot of drills where we'll get into action, the big will set a screen, the other big will roll off, dribble handoff on the side, play out of that," Humphries explained. "Or a big will catch in the post, make a big pass, swing, catch it, dribble handoff." Humphries had to catch his breath from just describing it. "So there's a lot of actions."
It's also the kind of system where a player's ability to make good decisions will be more fully reflected in his numbers. That's certainly been the case for Humphries this year.
"It's something that's developed, what we've seen develop," Stevens said of Humphries' passing. "And maybe he's always had it, but I didn't know it. We play him a lot in the seams, off the high pick and roll. And he catches it [in the] free-throw line area, and he can shoot that little shot, or he can make extra passes to people. And he usually picks well, what he's doing."
The Humphries defensive reputation is no longer operative, either. The blocks are up, the DRating is now just 102, down from his career rate of 105.
"I think he's really embraced what we're trying to do defensively," Stevens said. "Again, that was an adjustment for him, which might be why he struggled early on. But again, he hasn't fought it, he's embraced it. ... We have him switch a little bit more than he has in the past. I think he can guard guards pretty darn well. He can guard fours pretty darn well. I mean, he's a better athlete than I probably thought."
For his part, Humphries sounds like he's enjoying his work far more, now that his work is much more interesting.
"You know, it's different, because you're doing more on the floor here," Humphries said. "I've played on a lot of teams that were just strictly pick-and-roll, or the dunker, waiting for a drop-off to finish, or you're just ready to offensive rebound. And I think there's a lot more responsibility on this team. In the past, I've had more of a narrow role. Sometimes, when it's just -- OK, stand here and wait for the dunk, or just offensive rebound, honestly, it's pretty simple to play."
It's the kind of versatility that will make Humphries valuable to Stevens, should the Celtics bring Humphries back next season. (For his part, Celtics president Danny Ainge recently expressed interest in keeping Humphries, though of course, it was couched within an implicit rebuke to those who just assumed the Celtics would kick him to the curb.)
Not only is Humphries just 28, but the lack of full-season opportunities that have been part of Humphries' entire career mean he's hitting free agency without nearly the wear of other veterans his age.
"I haven't logged a lot of minutes on my body," Humphries said. "You look at some guys, not to put anybody out there, but some guys have played a hard 10 years, high 30 minutes for 10 years, and you're like, you can see that. And if you look at a guy like Grant Hill, he didn't play as often, hurt off and on, but still, body resting, and he played until he was what, 39? 40? And you know, I think that plays a factor.
"And I feel great. I'm out there with these 21, 22 year olds, and I'm right there."
Maybe it's time to give Humphries that blank slate the 21, 22 year olds enjoy. Or maybe even that sells Humphries short, a guy who has produced throughout his career when given the chance, and looks like he's better than he's ever been. The Celtics started him for 10 games in January. He averaged nearly a double-double in just more than 26 minutes.
Jared Sullinger returned, and Humphries returned to a reserve role, though Stevens is still giving him first call off the bench. Everyone believes the Celtics are going to build around Sullinger, and with good reason.
Where does that leave Kris Humphries? According to him, wherever the basketball opportunity is best. Maybe Kris Humphries is defined by something else in your mind, in the mind of an NBA executive, but not in his own mind.
"Obviously, people want to be in bigger cities. Some people like being in hot weather. I think that basketball is just such a focus, I think as long as the basketball situation is good, I think that people are happy, as players generally. You can be in a great city, and the basketball is not a good fit, it's kind of irrelevant." I could actually hear the "Brooklyn, Brooklyn" chants as he said this.
"Me personally, I care so much about basketball. My No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 priority is basketball."