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Bob Ryan

Hansbrough elbowing into role in NBA

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 23, 2009

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Did the TD Garden gathering last night fully appreciate the magnitude of what they witnessed as the Celtics took on the Indiana Pacers?

I wonder.

But among the participants was that rarest of all NBA species - a full-blown, four-year college star, and not just any star but the player logically anointed College Player of the Decade by the Sporting News.

Was there another choice, really? What college player’s résumé in the 2000s came even remotely close to the dazzling portfolio submitted by North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough, by far the most decorated collegian of the decade, and one of the most award-laden players of all-time?

Yet there was always a Tebow-esque undertone concerning his NBA future. He was, critics said, no lock for NBA stardom. Too much of what the 6- foot-9-inch, 250-pound forward accomplished as a collegian had to do with sheer effort. His bull-in-the-china-shop inside game, they claimed, was not going to translate all that well in the pros, where there were going to be scores of better athletes defending him. Thus did the acknowledged greatest achiever in college basketball in the 2000s fall to the cusp of the lottery in last June’s draft, landing with the Pacers at No. 13.

So young Hansbrough entered the World’s Greatest Basketball League (we again safely can say that now that Team USA is the reigning Olympic champion) as a sort of athletic experiment. Could an aggressive, determined, skilled (in some ways), but somewhat overachieving player find peace, happiness, and a respected place in an NBA rotation?

The numbers tell us he can play in the NBA. He has been coming off Jim O’Brien’s bench for an average of 18 minutes a game, collecting 9.1 points and 4.6 rebounds a game. You easily could project that into double-double territory with sufficient playing time. But critics have something to hang their hat on, too, citing his field goal percentage (.380) and the inordinate amount of his shots that get blocked. He has not yet demonstrated he can hit the mid-range jumper that was a major part of his repertoire as a Carolina senior. There are predictable defensive nit-picks.

What’s often left out of the conversation is that he was sidelined in the summer because of a shin injury he was dealing with since college and did not have much of a training camp. He was also limited in practice time when the season started.

“For a guy who missed training camp and then wasn’t able to practice much he’s doing fine,’’ declares his ultimate boss, Indiana team president Larry Bird (remember him?). “I think he can be a very good player. He’ll be in the league for a long time.’’

If you remember Hansbrough as a Tar Heel but haven’t seen him perform as a pro, you can be assured that he hasn’t changed his game. It’s about playing every second as if it’s going to be his last, and it’s about physicality. In fact, he already has a reputation as being someone you want to steer clear of. Seventy-one seconds into his NBA debut against the Washington Wizards he planted an elbow in Caron Butler’s face, and he was off and running. Last Wednesday he nailed both Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson in a game against the Charlotte Bobcats, and the latter went so far as to suggest Hansbrough find another calling.

Said Jackson, “Wrong sport . . . his skill level is not there for basketball. He’s a bruiser. He needs to be playing rugby, or something.’’

Now there may be a role for him in any future sequel to “Invictus,’’ but his immediate future does lie in basketball. “The one thing about this league is that nobody likes to get hit,’’ says Bird. “They don’t like to get hit with elbows, they don’t like to box out - none of that stuff. When a guy is going all-out on every play, things are going to happen. [Hansbrough’s] not going to back down. He brings it every day.’’

Bird is satisfied with Hansbrough’s basic inside game, and he’s confident it will expand.

“Oh, yeah,’’ Bird offers, “he can hit that 15- to 17-footer. We see it in practice, when he gets his rhythm going.’’

When he does start hitting that shot, it will be a luxury, because Bird regards Hansbrough as a power forward to begin with. “He’s just tough,’’ Bird says. “He gets his hands on a lot of loose balls.’’

And, of course, you knew the critics would zero in on his defense. There are better athletes in the NBA; no one will argue with that. There aren’t too many young Kevin Garnetts or Dwight Howards hanging around college gyms. But all rookies get undressed at one time or another. A Tyler Hansbrough has a harder time getting the benefit of the doubt.

“I think he’s better than what people are saying,’’ insists Bird. “When he gets a guard on a pick-and-roll, he can stay with him. I’m not saying he can go out and guard threes [small forwards] consistently, but there’s a lot worse guys out there trying to do that than Tyler.’’

The Hansbrough basics never will change, any more than they did with Dave Cowens almost 40 years ago. After watching Cowens grab 28 rebounds against a Bullets team featuring Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, I asked Bullets coach Gene Shue what would happen if a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played as hard as Cowens.

“Couldn’t happen,’’ he said. “Hustle is part of ability.’’

It was with that thought in mind that Larry Bird drafted Tyler Hansbrough. “His motor is just so high,’’ Larry says. “You know me. I like guys that come to play every day.’’

He won two state titles in high school and then gave his all at Chapel Hill, taking home every individual award before capping off his career with the ultimate team prize - an NCAA title. He was the greatest college player of the decade, but is there really any reason the story should end there? No, there isn’t.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe’s 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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