The Beauty from the Beast


It’s Tyler Hansbrough’s world, and we’re all just living in it.  Well, at least that’s how it seems at times these days.  A tough outing against Boston might dim the national spotlight, but right now in Indiana, Buckaroo Banzai remains the good deed shining in a weary world.

Hansbrough is the type of guy that one can’t help but respond to viscerally – you either love him or you hate him.  The delineation between the two seems largely based on whether he’s playing for your team or against it.  It’s likely to always be this way, and not many will feel the need to spend much time analyzing either those feelings or Tyler’s game.

But it’s what I do, so it’s what I’ve done.  Tyler’s March – 19.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, .547 TS% – could quite possibly be a revelation.  Or, it could be a big-numbers-bad-team phenomenon – the Pacers are 3-7 during March, losing those seven games by a total of 107 points.   Most likely, it’s somewhere in between, with his performance being a real indication of a good NBA player, while the numbers might be marginally inflated over what you would reasonably expect on a consistent basis.

Regardless of where on that spectrum this month belongs, it seems to me that Tyler has established himself as both a bona fide NBA player and perhaps the most solid young core member the Pacers have.  While the foundation of this remains the visceral essence of “Psycho T”, I believe the catalyst for the success comes from one little piece he’s added to his game.

The Beast

In the interest of full disclosure, I wanted to re-publish some things I wrote the summer Tyler was drafted.  My “What Does a Draft Pick Get You?” series started life out as a series of posts on Pacers Digest.  I was not happy with Hansbrough’s selection at the time, so to understand it, I looked at how highly decorated NCAA players had performed comparative to other NBA draft picks.  In that post, here’s how I outlined my concerns about Hansbrough:

I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it for a lot of the reasons that (Jared) outlined. I tend to be unimpressed by arguments like winner and heart and toughness and hard worker, particularly when they all precede any discussion of actual basketball skills. While Tyler has demonstrated all of these traits at the college level, he (like every other draft pick) has proven nothing at the NBA level.

Also, I worry that some of Tyler’s traits, while admirable, could be counterproductive at the next level. Hansbrough strikes me as a hammer in search of a nail – at all times. The problem is, I don’t think that approach will do him much good in the NBA…at least not without some moderation. He will need to learn when to bully, and when to finesse…when to stand strong, and when to bend to the flow. He’s not big, strong, quick, or talented enough to force the issue all the time. He will have to work twice as hard to be half as successful in the NBA. He will have to learn how to survive in the NBA, before he can even contemplate trying to become the player he was at the college player.

For reference, this is what I had quoted from Jared Wade’s take on Tyler:

Those of us who are a little disappointed today think Tyler just doesn’t have the basketball tools to translate the understanding of fundamental basketball he showed at UNC into NBA-level production. He doesn’t have any defined way to score points or stop other people from scoring points at this level. And, based on the evidence I have seen of him over the past four years, he isn’t likely to develop an arsenal of new ways to do either of those things. He plays the game in a certain way that has been effective for him throughout his life, but that style has been mainly based upon out-muscling, out-quicking, out-hustling and, sure, even “out-fundamentalling” players who were incapable of matching him in those areas. When he begins playing against people who all cannot only match him in those areas but greatly supersede his abilities in them, I believe his ability to influence a game will become significantly diminished.

These views were not particularly uncommon at that time, and though I certainly can see the flaws in them today, I don’t find them embarrassing.  (I will admit that my immediate, gut reaction to Tyler’s selection was silly and hyperbolic, but that passed relatively quickly.)  Ultimately, if you read the entire post, I came to the conclusion that taking Hansbrough at #13 was a good, sound pick, that I didn’t find particularly exciting.

Buckaroo’s rookie year brought a completely different understanding of Tyler’s “presence” (for lack of a better word), but also either reinforced or raised some serious concerns about his future.  On the positive side, it taught Pacer fans exactly what kind of intensity Hansbrough actually brought.  “Hard worker” and “heart” are often NBA euphemisms that can be roughly paralleled to saying that someone has a “really nice personality.”  It takes little time to understand just how untrue that is in Psycho T’s situation.

However, there were still problems.  Though he put up very impressive per36 numbers of almost 18 points and 10 rebounds, he was a horribly inefficient scorer.  He shot only .360 from the floor and .743 from the line.  He had almost 14% of his shots blocked – the third highest percentage among Power Forwards who averaged 15 or more minutes per game.   In his 511 minutes, the team was outscored by 57 points (over 5 per 48) and dropped in offensive efficiency by almost 4 points per 100.

In effect, both Tyler’s strengths and weaknesses were accentuated – almost caricatured – during his first year.  All of this was made even more confusing by a mystery malady that was first reported as an ear infection, ended up as vertigo, and pretty much ran the gamut of wild speculation in between.  This cost him the last half of his rookie season and caused much doubt about his future.   It was considered pessimistic, but not wholly unreasonable, this past summer to honestly wonder if Tyler Hansbrough would ever see the floor again.

Fortunately, the medical drama seems to have passed (knock on wood), and Hansbrough’s career has moved on this season.  That hurdle cleared left Tyler and Pacer fans only with the initial questions about translating his game to the NBA.

The Beauty

But we sit here today talking about a player who is clearly the toast of the town.  A player who – along with Paul George – represents pretty much the only untarnished bright spots that the Pacers can claim in this incredibly frustrating season.  What the key to the turnaround?  In my opinion, it’s the little bit of finesse – that little flicker of beauty – that Tyler has added to his game:  the mid-range shot.

Actually, more accurately, the “long two”, which is defined by Hoopdata.com as shots taken between 16-23 feet from the basket.  Typically, shooting from this area is frowned upon.  I, myself, have referred to it as “where offenses go to die.”  It is the least efficient spot on the floor from which to shoot, being as far from the basket as you can get without getting an extra point.  But for Tyler, it’s not only encouraged, I believe it’s integral to his success, now and in the future.

The chart above shows Tyler’s Shot Distribution for this season (2011 – Red Outline) and last (2010 – Solid Blue).  You can see a subtle, but significant movement away from the paint and out onto the floor.  This should be seen less as a retreat, and more as a strategic repositioning.   And it’s paying benefits.  Take a look at his shooting percentages at each location on the floor, year over year.

He has made huge improvements across the board.  Hansbrough is now above average in both the 3-to-9 foot range and the 16-to-23 foot range.  The floor is more open to him now.   Defenders can no longer wait for him at the basket, they must come out with him on the floor.  His percentage of shots blocked is down to 8%, and his eFG% is up to .456.  And the biggest chunk of that can be attributed to moving away from the basket – bending with the flow.

The chart above shows the “stack” for Tyler’s 2011 eFG%.  Its purpose is to show where the improvement comes from, and it clearly illustrates that almost half of the jump is coming in the 16-to-23 foot range.   The fact that Hanbrough has been better from there has added over 20 more makes or over 41 points to his total this year.  And, as I’ve said before, it’s the gate key to his improvement elsewhere.

Though shooting much better at the rim (.579 vs. .514), Tyler is still well below the .640 that the NBA shoots on average close to the basket.  This is where Psycho T’s “physical shortcomings” become more pronounced.  He is undersized for a 4, lacking in both height and reach, and he is significantly less explosive flat-footed than with even just a step.  He has developed some unorthodox ways of getting the ball up on the glass, but he does not have an arsenal of post moves designed to get him a variety of good looks.  Being close to the basket hampers or nullifies what I think Tyler’s most important physical attribute – his motor.  Tyler is not unathletic by any stretch of the imagination, but his athleticism is better expressed horizontally than vertically.  The more floor he has to work with, the better.

Tyler has been referred to by people both inside and outside of the Pacer organization as a “secondary post threat”, presumably to Roy Hibbert.  This is technically inaccurate, as Hansbrough isn’t really much of a post player.  Take a look at a snapshot of his Synergy.

Only about 21% of his shots come out of Post action, compared to almost 54% for Roy Hibbert, and he only hits about 38% on those attempts.  Buckaroo’s highest efficiency come in Transition (71.4%) and on Cuts (55.8%), but that’s pretty typical – that’s where most dunks and easy layups occur.   But after that, he does really well in Spot Ups (45.7%) and perhaps most importantly, as the Roll Man (45.2%). The “Roll Man” is important, because in actuality, he’s the “Pop Man” in most of those instances.  Tyler is really the only consistently viable PnR-PnP partner for Darren Collison, and as such, he’s a lifeline for the young guard, offensively.

Now, none of this is meant to argue that Tyler should become more of a jump shooter or a perimeter player.  It is really meant to show how using that finesse, that outside beauty, actually makes Hanbrough a better, more effective inside player.  This isn’t changing his strengths, it’s facilitating them.  It’s also evolving Tyler into a player who will fit in more winning situations with more and different players.

In 2010, Tyler was “Buckaroo Banzai” – the hammer in search of the nail.  In 2011, he has become a basketball player.  Not only is Psycho T better off, but the Pacers as a whole are, too.

Happily Ever After?

This thought of Hanbrough needing an established mid-range shot is hardly original on my part.  Alex Yovanovich pointed it out a few weeks ago:

Meanwhile, Hansbrough needs to spend as much time as possible practicing 15-20 foot jumpers. With his propensity for getting to the foul line he could be a much more consistent scorer if he can develop his jump shot. It’s easy to see that he should be a double figure scorer on a nightly basis. He may develop into a solid starter, but I don’t see that happening until his jump shot can be counted on.

Alex took a little flak for referring to Tyler as a “backup”, but his concerns then were valid, and may still be.  As I noted above, Hansbrough’s emergence has largely coincided with a pretty crappy stretch of play by the Pacers.  Also, he only averaged 10 points per on .388 shooting in the 7-1 bolt out of the gate under Frank Vogel.  He hasn’t established a consistently strong correlation between his performance and Pacer success.

Over the last two weeks, he has emerged as a primary option.  Right now, his job is to score, and he’s doing that well.  I’m just not sure how good a team can be with Hansbrough as option #1 or #2.  He is arguably the strongest presence in a weak environment now.  How will he fit with other, potentially better, Alpha players?

Finally, some defensive concerns remain.  He is -as always- a willing defender and a hard worker.  He is decent enough one-on-one, and certainly isn’t someone that the opponent would necessarily target to exploit (or even could).   However, he remains spectactularly bad at rotations, and in a defense that necessarily depends on being tied together to be successful – that does hurt.  This seems to me to be something he’ll struggle with throughout his career.  Unlike the jump shot – which in most situation fits perfectly with his clarity and “make a decision and go with it” ethos – rotations are more deliberative, and seem to fight against his instincts.

So, yeah, not considering retiring his number just yet.

However, all that said, there may be no player worth keeping and building around on this current Pacer roster more than Tyler Hansbrough.  With so many guys in the NBA, you can say, “If he could only do this, or improve that…”  Years later, you could still say, “If he would have only done this, or improved that…”  Tyler’s jump shot just may be that little tweak that allows him to be true to himself without getting in his own way.  It makes him more versatile, more effective, and easier to fit into bigger schemes.

Is he the anchor of an NBA champion?  No, but he could be one of the cornerstones – something that I’m not willing to even consider about any other player on this team right now besides perhaps Paul George.  By mixing just a little bit of beauty with his natural beast,  Tyler is carving out success at the highest level of the game.  There are worse things to have at your foundation if you’re an NBA franchise.

Tags: Tyler Hansbrough

  • Tad

    And the Bulls go down. The Pacers just beat the best team in the East with Tyler as the #1 option, with 29 points and 12 rebounds. That’s another step in the right direction.

  • Kevin

    From a UNC fan, the thing about him that was really underrated nationally was the extent to which he improved every year. People sometimes think that because he was awesome as a freshman, he mostly just did the same things each year after that, but it’s really not the case. It was really amazing, coming back to a new season in November and saying, “Oh, I guess Tyler has a jump shot now,” or “He’s actually blocking shots once in a while,” or whatever. The point is that I think his work ethic really does pay off not just in rehabbing or staying in shape, but in actively improving his game.

  • Speed

    Dead on. Great piece. Nothing to add. Nice job!

  • Kevin

    He’s essentially been in the league for 1.5 years, and has basically shocked everybody except Larry Bird, so let’s give him maybe… 2.5 years before we analyze every hair on his head. Good grief are we that desperate for a consistently good player?

  • KATHY

    Extremely thorough and thought provoking. Work ethic is historically a hallmark of Pacer success, but consistency is certainly the key concept here. Hope that success keeps building on success.

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