Foster Quietly Making Big Impact as Starter
By Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, March 25, 2004
To untrained eyes, Jeff Foster is the fifth Beatle.
On an Indiana team laden with stars, particularly in the frontcourt, Foster is an afterthought, a relatively anonymous entity, the everyman at center. He wasn’t supposed to be the starting center this year. Some suggest he isn’t supposed to be the starting center next year.
But he’s the starting center now, and you’ll find no one in or around the Pacers locker room offering any apologies.
“I love Jeff because he makes things easier for everybody – his teammates and the coaches,” said Al Harrington. “He’s a guy that will play 48 minutes and will not complain about one shot. All he wants is to do the dirty work.”
Foster is in the midst of his most productive scoring surge of the season, reaching double-figures in four consecutive games and posting a pair of double-doubles. In those games, he has averaged 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in 31.0 minutes – all well above his season averages of 5.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 23.5 minutes.
In his fifth NBA season, the former first-round pick from Southwest Texas State has learned not to get too excited about the numbers that show up next to his name in the box score, particularly those in the scoring column. But he has become a more frequent target for his teammates’ passes of late.
“Some opportunities have presented themselves,” Foster said. “My teammates are doing a good job of driving the ball and getting me open underneath, and my shots come off stuff like that. Reggie (Miller)’s done a good job all year of hitting me when he and I run pick-and-rolls and he’s done a good job the last few games of doing that. Other guys have seen me as well. I’m getting some fast-break stuff now with Jamaal (Tinsley). We’re kind of getting up and down a little bit more.
“If I can score points and help the team win, it’s a good thing. We’re 2-2 in my last four double-figure scoring games, so it hasn’t necessarily been as beneficial as I’d like it to be. It would’ve been a lot better to win all those games. I’ll do anything I can to help the team and if that’s scoring, well, I used to be able to score in college so maybe I can do it again.”
One of the most productive rebounders in the NBA, Foster ranks second in the league in offensive rebounds per 48 minutes (5.9), and 10th in total rebounds per 48 minutes (14.8). While that reflects a consistent career-long trend, his playing time has deviated wildly. He started the first 66 games of the 2001-02 season at center, averaging 6.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 25.0 minutes. But then came the trade for Brad Miller, and Foster’s time dwindled to just 10.4 minutes last season – the lowest since his rookie year.
When Miller was traded to Sacramento in July, it was widely assumed the player acquired in the deal, Scot Pollard, would move right into the lineup. But while Pollard has struggled to adjust to his new surroundings, Foster has been familiarly effective.
“He’s a guy that’s very important to our team because he doesn’t need the ball to be an effective offensive player,” said Coach Rick Carlisle. “He can generate extra possessions for us off the offensive boards and he does a great job of playing off our primary scorers and putting himself into position to attack the rim and get put-backs and so forth. The other thing about Jeff is he’s underrated as a basketball player. He’s got a very good feel for the game. He’s a terrific passer. We don’t ask him to shoot the ball from the outside, but that’s an area where he’s going to get better.
“This is no disrespect to Scot Pollard but I felt Foster, even when I first got the job, was going to have an opportunity to be a starter here. I wasn’t sure what the timetable was going to be but I’ve always seen him in my experience with him as a guy who is a top-level rebounder and a top-level post defender and a guy who knew how to play the game. And he’s a very good athlete, too. He has great speed for a guy 6-11. I’m happy for him because he’s gotten the opportunity and really solidified his position as a starter.”
Foster may not get a lot of attention from the media or general public, but his importance to the Pacers is no secret throughout the NBA.
“You can see how tough these guys are. They are a physical team, a tough team,” said Memphis Coach Hubie Brown. “They have (Ron) Artest and (Jermaine) O’Neal but the unsung guy on that team is (Jeff) Foster. He is a big key for that team. He dives on the floor, he gets deflections ... he does a great job.”
O’Neal, who with Brad Miller enjoyed a formidable All-Star tandem on the front line, hasn’t missed a beat with Foster in the lineup. O’Neal’s averages (20.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.65 blocked shots) all are nearly identical to last season.
“He’s doing a heck of a job of rebounding and he’s starting to make that short jump shot,” O’Neal said. “But the biggest area he gives me a lot of help is on the defensive end. He’s one of the best interior defenders, I think, in the game. People don’t talk that much about him but he’s one of those guys that can get the job done. He’s the guy that’s going to start on the best offensive post player every single night and he harasses them, he beats on them and makes their night a lot tougher.”
Foster’s most obvious defensive performance came in an 89-79 victory over San Antonio on Jan. 16, when he played a major role in holding Tim Duncan to a 4-of-18 shooting night. This game less than a week after Duncan was 9 of 23 from the field in an overtime victory over the Pacers.
“Jeff did a great job on me,” Duncan said. “He contested every shot and he kept me from getting the ball in good spots. He just did a great job all-around”
It is somehow fitting that such a shining moment for Foster reflected what he did to an opponent, not what he produced for himself. Foster is the quintessence of unselfishness. Not only does he make no demand for the ball on offense, he has no qualms about giving up his body to set crushing screens or throw himself to the floor in pursuit of loose balls or stick his nose into rebounding scrums against much bigger bodies.
Everybody else calls it dirty work. Foster just calls it work.
“There’s just so much talent on this team,” he said. “Even when I got here my rookie year, that’s sort of how it was. I’ve realized my role. You see where you are. Everybody wants to be a star in this league but you can’t do that and you can’t be successful if you have that mindset. But you can be a solid contributor and be a part of a winning team if you take the attitude I’ve taken and do whatever you can do to help the team win.”
When he says it, he means it. The evidence is in his play. Foster can play as few or as many minutes as Carlisle chooses, but he plays them all the same way – as though they might be his last.
“He’s just a tough individual,” said Ron Artest, something of an expert on the subject.
The question remains, however, if the Pacers can win a title with a role-player in the middle. Three years ago, the answer was clear when the trade with Chicago for Miller was consummated. Now, however, Foster has made a very strong case for his value as a starting center.
Of course, he’s done it with performance, not words.
“If we win, that’s what matters,” he said. “I don’t necessarily judge myself by points.”
Nor do his teammates or coaches.
“If we needed him to score more, I believe he has the ability to do it now if we got him more shots or wanted to get him some more jump shots,” Carlisle said. “He’s hit his fair share of jump shots throughout the year. But with the way our team is, it’s hard to have more than three true scorers on the floor at once. You’ve got to have some guys who’ll play other roles and know how to play off of guys that are primary offensive threats. Jeff does that as well as anybody in this league.”
Stardom doesn’t appear to be in the cards for Foster, but that’s fine with him. He’ll just take his place in the chorus and keep hitting every note.
“He’s found his niche,” said Harrington. “Every team in the league would wish they had five guys like that.”
They might only score 50 points a game but, odds are, they’d win.