Back before all that other crazy stuff happened in the fourth quarter and overtime, there was like a 30 percent chance that last night’s opener of the Pacers-Heat series was going to be known as “The Tyler Hansbrough Game.” Nah, he didn’t go full-on Nate Robinson or anything, but he did have a stretch where he hit four buckets in about a five minute stretch, keeping Indiana’s head above water during the Heat’s characteristic third-quarter surge and killing valuable time for David West on the bench. His name trended on Twitter. Reggie Miller made a reference to him being the MVP or some such. Then a couple crazy shots, a couple crazy fouls, a couple crazy defensive breakdowns, and now Tyler Hansbrough’s breakout is kinda whatever. Oh well.
I’ve long been infatuated with Tyler Hansbrough’s role on the Indiana Pacers, because I can’t remember another player in the league in a position quite like it. Usually, nominal sixth men/first men off the bench types are shooting/playmaking guards, or at the very least, big men with impressive post games like Carl Landry or Paul Millsap a couple years ago. Tyler Hansbrough is basically the Pacers’ sixth man by default, because they have no other good bench players (or even competent ones, really — would any of DJ Augustin, Orlando Johnson, Ian Mahinmi, Sam Young or Gerald Green get even spot minutes on the Heat?), but he’s definitely not a shooter or a playmaker, and his post moves are pretty pedestrian, if even that.
Still, he gets results, sort of. Taking a cursory look at Hansbrough’s per-game averages on the season, they certainly won’t blow you away — seven points, about five rebounds, 43 percent shooting and one turnover per game is pretty unremarkable stuff. Look a little deeper, though, and he starts to look decently effective. First and foremost, despite only playing the seventh-most minutes per game on the team — yes, even Gerald Green played more — he drew the second-most free throws on the team, shooting nearly four a game in his 17 minutes, good for a per-36 average of nearly eight a contest. He was one of only 38 players to shoot 300 free throws this year, and he played by far the fewest minutes of anyone on that list. And while he’s not quite a Reggie Evans-sized monster on the glass, he certainly crashes it with abandon, grabbing the second-most offensive boards on the team. Again, he was one of only 41 players to grab 160 offensive rebounds this year, and of those 41, only the prodigious Andre Drummond played fewer minutes.
To paraphrase Trey on a recent podcast, this is basically the entirety of the Pacers’ second unit offensive strategy: Tyler Hansbrough goes running around and hopes to draw a foul. The net results of that being your entire offensive strategy for stretches of the game at a time is obviously disastrous, as is reflected by Hansbrough’s unflattering on-court/off-court plus-minus numbers. But hell, if Hansbrough’s knees-and-elbows efficiency doesn’t do its damnedest to make it slightly redeemable. In the end, he posted an above-average PER for the season (15.3) and was worth a very respectable 4.4 Win Shares on the season, with his .154 WS/48 being the third-highest on the Pacers, higher than even All-Star and budding superstar Paul George. It’s not pretty, and Tyler doesn’t do anything to make it pretty. In fact, he makes it as brutal-looking as possible.
When Tyler was drafted by Indiana with the 14th pick after his highly decorated four-year career at UNC, the selection came under predictable fire. Indiana had still yet to dig itself out from the mess caused by the Malice at the Palace, and after shipping a number of their key players away for guys like Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy — moves read by many as an intentional exchange of their “thuggish” black players for “high-character” white guys, to the detriment of the team’s skill level — picking Hansbrough, believed by many to be a late first round-caliber pick, over the likes of Earl Clark, James Johnson and Hansbrough’s teammate Ty Lawson, seemed to be moving even further in the wrong direction. After all, it didn’t seem like Tyler had what it took to succeed at the pro level. He didn’t have the size advantage to be physical in the paint, he didn’t have the athleticism to be a shot-blocker or a court-runner, and he didn’t even have the jump shot to be a floor-spacer. It was unclear what elite skills, if any, he could bring to an NBA team.
Well, there’s one elite skill Hansbrough has that the Chad Fords and Jay Bilases of the world didn’t tell you about at the time: Being annoying. With the possible exception of the aforementioned Evans, there’s no peskier player in the league than Tyler Hansbrough, a constant buzzing sound around the ears of opposing frontcourt players, just begging to be swatted. Plenty of players initiate or exaggerate contact, but only Tyler goes bumbling into the fray with drawing contact as his Plan A, B and C. Meanwhile, he pokes and prods on defense, looking for any possible chance to get under an opponent’s skin, hoping that at some point they’ll turn around and deck him and he can put his hands in his pockets and whistle his way to the line.
And it’s not just his style of play that’s blood-boilingly irritating, it’s also the way he looks — you look at him, and you just want to foul him. You could call this is a cheap shot against Hansbrough, but I don’t believe for a second that it’s unintentional. That military-ready haircut and perpetually bug-eyed expression seem custom-designed and market-tested to be as douchey as possible. And the way he walks, good lord, in long, stiff strides with his chest out and his shoulders hunched up like that, like he’s a 12-year-old trying to show off his muscles on the playground … nobody actually walks like that, at least nobody outside of villains in ’80s high school and college movies. Few kids want to grow up being William Zabka (or in Hansbrough’s case, perhaps just Luke from “The O.C.”), but it worked for Billy, and it’s working for Tyler, too.
My favorite Hansbrough play from last night wasn’t any of his buckets, but when he did something nobody else in the league knows how to do like Hansbrough: He drew a technical foul. On a fast break with Paul George against Shane Battier and Chris Andersen in the first quarter, he went sprawling towards the basket and before he could get the ball up or even get a foul call, he got whistled for traveling. Most players would take this as a sign that the play was over, but not Tyler, who continued stumbling into Battier to try to make it look like Battier was continuing to foul him into the ground, clipping Birdman a tad as well. Eventually, Andersen got frustrated at Hansbrough’s chicanery and yanked him away from Battier, which was likely exactly what Hansbrough was hoping he would do all along. Technical foul on Andersen, one shot for the Pacers. D.J. Augustin may have been the one to make the free throw, but the point really should have been credited to Hansbrough.
Of course, it doesn’t always work. Later in the game, Hansbrough tried a similar move on Battier while going for an offensive rebound, purposefully tangling himself up with Battier and essentially forcing the Heat forward to send him hurtling towards the ground as one of Shane’s teammates collected the ball. Rather than getting a possession-saving whistle on Battier, however, this time Tyler got the whistle himself, and Battier went to shoot free throws, as if the refs were saying “OK, Tyler, enough of this crap already.” And that was about it for Hansbrough — the third quarter ended, and Vogel played him little after that, seeming to sense he’d reached the limit of his powers with his 10 points and six rebounds in less than 13 minutes.
Still, if you’re a Pacers fan, you have to love that he tried there, and that if he was out there for another few minutes, he probably would’ve tried again a couple possessions later. Hansbrough won’t likely be in those fourth quarters and overtimes these series, but if he doesn’t run around and draw fouls and generally create havoc in his spot minutes leading the team’s second unit, Paul George probably doesn’t even get a chance to tie up the game with a miracle three with less than a second to go. It’s not much to hang your hat on, but at least Tyler’s trail of destruction is far more productive than Sam Young’s or Jeff Pendergraph’s, and everyone once in a while, he might go nuts and Reggie might call him the MVP. We’ll have an official Tyler Hansbrough Game one of these days, just watch.