Anyone that watched the Pitt Panthers beat (up, physically) the UConn Huskies last night will know that DeJuan Blair owned Hasheem Thabeet in a match-up of the two best big men in the country.
Clearly, Blair was the better player last night and probably will have Thabeet's number come the March 7th match-up in Pittsburgh (and any potential match-up in the Big East or NCAA tournaments). But it is tough to argue that Blair has more upside than Thabeet.
The question becomes who will be a better pro. More than anything, last night really exposed Thabeet. Right now, Thabeet is an exceptional help defender - he thrives on being the weak side shot blocker and defending the rim against perimeter penetration. Where he struggles is when he is forced to guard someone stronger than him (especially a guy like Blair, whose center of gravity is so much lower) or someone who is quicker than him and can play the perimeter (remember what happened when the Huskies played Georgetown?).
He succeeds as a 1-on-1 defender when he goes against other players with similar physiques, other true centers. In the NBA, those are the kind of players he will face. He still needs to get stronger, but once he does he will be able to guard guys like Andrew Bynum or Amare Stoudamire simply because of his length and athleticism. Because of his limited offensive repertoire and the way he struggles defending the pick-and-roll (and on the perimeter in general), Thabeet may never be more than a role/bench player. But there is definitely a place for him in the league.
It is a little different for Blair. Here is a guy who is listed at 6'7' but is probably closer to 6'6", not a great athlete, and around 260 lb. On the surface, Blair looks destined to follow in the footsteps of a guy like Mike Sweetney - too short to survive in the post, not enough perimeter game to become a Corliss Williamson.
But Blair really impressed me last night. Yes, 22 and 23 in a game against the #1 team in the country should impress everyone. It wasn't the numbers, however. It was the way Blair executed his moves offensively. Everyone knows about Blair's rebounding ability and how well he understands positioning, but I always questioned how well Blair would play going against a tall shot blocker. It is safe to say Blair was somewhat successful last night.
What Blair did was hit Thabeet first, knocking Thabeet off balance, back a half step, and thus taking away his jumping ability. Essentially, he neutralized Thabeet's shot blocking. He did it going to his right, to his left, finishing with a fade-away, off the dribble. I understand that Blair is a tough match-up for Thabeet right now, but he really made an impression with his complete dominance on both ends of the floor.
Another thing that impresses me about Blair is his passing ability, especially on outlet passes. One of the reasons Pitt is so good this year is that they can overcome their offensive struggles by running the floor. They are able to get out and run in large part because the guy that gets the majority of their rebounds can throw an exceptional outlet pass.
His strength and rebounding ability alone should allow him a Danny Fortson type of career, but if last night is any indication, he could become much more.
My take? I think at worst both will be effective role players in the league. Thabeet has a much higher ceiling (he could turn into the next Dikembe Mutumbo), but that is a big 'if'. Blair could probably average 8 boards a game right now in the league, but if things break right (right system, loses some weight while keeping that strength) there is a good chance he becomes a 15 and 10 guy.