ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Thabo Sefolosha stood along the baseline, a basketball under his right arm as he watched a drill on the first day of training camp for the Atlanta Hawks.
Just routine stuff.
But Sefolosha is relishing every moment of his return to the court, anything to help him move on from a disputed arrest by New York City police that he said led to a broken right leg and knocked him out of the playoffs.
“It’s been a long road,” he said. “It was definitely tough watching from the sideline in the playoffs, not being able to help the team.”
Sefolosha was a key contributor off the bench, a defensive stopper who helped the Hawks to a franchise-record 60 wins and the top seed in the East. Without him, Atlanta still managed to reach the conference final for the first time, but his absence on the perimeter became apparent as LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers romped to a four-game sweep.
“Sometimes you look out there, and you feel like his arms and legs are everywhere,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Solid seems like a boring word, but he’s really a good, solid defender who does a lot of things within whatever scheme you’re doing.”
During the final week of the regular season, Sefolosha and then-teammate Pero Antic made a late-night stop at a Manhattan nightclub popular with athletes and celebrities. Police arrived after another NBA player, Chris Copeland, was stabbed during an altercation.
There was no indication the Atlanta players were with Copeland or had anything to do with the stabbing, but officers say they interfered with the crime scene. They were both arrested and, at some point, Sefolosha wound up with a broken fibula and torn ligaments.
The charges against Antic have since been dropped, but Sefolosha turned down a lenient plea-bargain that would have required him to do a single day of community service. His trial is scheduled for Monday in New York.
“I’m very confident,” Sefolosha said. “But at the same time it’s not something I’m used to. I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t want to talk too much about it, but I’m confident and I know in my heart that I (did not do) anything wrong.”
The burden of the case — and the possibility of a civil lawsuit against police — is a distraction Sefolosha would prefer not to have as he prepares for a new season and the chance to move into the Hawks’ starting lineup.
“It’s definitely on my mind,” he said. “It’s not the best time to be dealing with all this. But it’s got to be done. I’m trying to be strong for my family and my teammates and my team, and trying to do what’s right.”
Sefolosha seems the most logical candidate to take over at small forward for DeMarre Carroll, who left the Hawks for a $60 million contract with Toronto.
Yet there are questions about Sefolosha’s offensive skills.
“I think offensively he’s a little bit underrated as far as his decision-making and passing, his slashing and understanding timing,” Budenholzer said. “We’ve just got to continue to work with his shooting and get him to where he’s making shots and he’s comfortable there.”
While Sefolosha has been cleared to take part in all activities, he acknowledged that he’s not yet at 100 percent. His minutes will be limited in camp and during preseason games.
“It’s been only 5 1-2 months,” Sefolosha said,. “I’m still building strength and building confidence.”
The Hawks have other candidates. Kent Bazemore is a bit undersized for the position, but he played well in the playoffs after Carroll was slowed by an ankle injury. The Hawks also have newcomer Tim Hardaway Jr., acquired from the New York Knicks.
Kyle Korver, another Atlanta player coming back from an injury, has been getting a lot of one-on-one time with Sefolosha during the rehab process.
“I want Thabo to be on my team again,” Korver said. “He looks great. He’s shooting the ball really good. … I think he’s going to have a great year.”
Sefolosha is certainly ready to move on.
He wants to be known for what he does on the court, not for an incident that has been linked to other racially charged incidents involving police.
However, Sefolosha, a native of Switzerland who is black, did say it has opened his eyes “to some degree.”
“I’m the same person. I will continue to be the same person,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’m still in the middle of it. But hopefully it will be a thing of the past soon.”