Hansbrough returns to mixed reactions
I remember when Tyler Hansbrough made his debut at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, on Nov. 6, 2009. The first time he touched the ball after coming off the bench, a fan yelled “Come on Tyler, take over the game!” You might say fan expectations were high then, after he had been voted a first team All-American three years at North Carolina and led the Tar Heels to the national championship as a senior.
Hansbrough returned to the Fieldhouse for the first time as a Toronto Raptor on Friday, and fan expectations were modest. Still coming off the bench, he finished with four points and five rebounds in 19 ½ minutes, although he did at least pick up his first assist of the season early in the fourth quarter when he tossed out a pass from the lane to Julyan Stone for a three-pointer.
Surprisingly, Hansbrough was greeted with a smattering of boos from the crowd that once held such high hopes for him when he entered the game late in the first period. He was booed more loudly when he got his only field goal out of four attempts, a dunk in the third quarter.
He seemed not to care.
“I’ve always had a mixed reaction wherever I go,” he said afterward. “It’s nothing new.”
Hansbrough will not go down as team president Larry Bird’s best draft pick, but he wasn’t a bust. Taken with the 13th selection – Bird’s second consideration was point guard Ty Lawson, now starring in Denver – he averaged 8.9 points and 4.7 rebounds in four seasons with the Pacers. He averaged 11 points while starting 29 games his second season, ramping up expectations, but the acquisition of David West returned him to the bench. The conundrum was that he played much better as a starter than a reserve, and in fact had some fans calling for him to start ahead of West last season after he excelled while West sat out nine games with a strained back. But he simply wasn’t as good as West, who shot better and passed more often.
Roy Hibbert offered a blunt but accurate summation of Hansbrough’s play with the Pacers – without mentioning his name – on Media Day before the start of training camp while praising his replacement, Luis Scola: “That’s the thing we didn’t have with our backup power forward last year, the willingness to pass and take smart shots,” Hibbert said.
Hansbrough was always direct about his preference for starting, but hasn’t found a place in Toronto’s opening lineup, either. Playing behind Amir Johnson, Hansbrough is now averaging 6.5 points and 6.3 rebounds while playing 19 minutes, 39 seconds per game. He’s shooting better so far (.545 from the field, .833 from the foul line) but otherwise is producing about the same as he did with the Pacers.
As always, however, coaches praise his effort. No doubt they always will.
“He’s the kind of player you love coaching,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said before Friday’s game. “Not the most talented player in the world, but he gives you every ounce of blood he has. That’s my kind of guy.”
Asked if he thought Hansbrough would be especially motivated to play against his former team, Pacers coach Frank Vogel smiled.
“I don’t think it’s possible for him to play harder in this game than he does every single night,” Vogel said. “I’m sure he wants to win a little more, but that guy goes a hundred or million percent every night.”
Scola started slowly with the Pacers but has played better the last two games. He is without a doubt a better perimeter shooter, and a more willing and able passer than Hansbrough, although statistical evidence is scant. Scola has just two assists so far but showed his talent for the task in the second quarter on Friday with an over-the-shoulder backdoor feed to Paul George, whose attempted dunk was blocked by Rudy Gay.
Hansbrough likely will play in the NBA for as many years as his body allows him, but he appears stuck in the dreaded role of backup power forward unless his develops a perimeter shot along the lines of West and Scola. Dominating a game is a distant dream.