In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be enlightening. Also see Michael David Smith's original NFL Every Play Counts at Fanhouse.com.
Tyler Hansbrough has been a star virtually from the moment he arrived on campus at North Carolina. He is the marquee player for one of the country's preeminent teams, and has played in a Final Four. All of this would figure to make Hansbrough a somewhat unlikely candidate for the Every Play Counts treatment. What more could we learn about Hansbrough as he wraps up his stellar college career?
As it turns out, plenty. Hansbrough's high visibility means the mythology about his game has also become strong, and in taking a close look at his performance in the Tar Heels' ACC Tournament semifinal loss to Florida State, I'm not sure what I saw always matched what I've heard and even believed.
Most notably, ESPN broadcasters Mike Patrick and Len Elmore spent much of the game praising how hard Hansbrough works on the floor, a familiar refrain. Granted, it was one game, but in looking at the tape one of the things that struck me in watching Hansbrough was an example of his inactivity. I was surprised how little of a factor he was in rebounding misses outside of his area. Hansbrough had 11 rebounds, yet relatively few required him to track down the basketball. He's much more reliant in this regard on his aggressiveness in boxing out when a shot goes up.
This seems to match what the numbers show. Hansbrough is much more a good rebounder than a great one. He's grabbed 16.5 percent of available defensive rebounds while on the court this season, a mark which ranks him 449th nationally per Ken Pomeroy's stats.
The broadcast did do a great job of highlighting a three-possession sequence early in the second half where Hansbrough showed off the breadth of his offensive skills. On the first play, he caught the ball at the three-point line, put it on the floor and used a spin move to free himself for a banker off glass from about 10 feet. Next, Hansbrough established deep post position early in the offense and scored on a soft hook shot. Lastly, Hansbrough caught the ball just outside the paint, saw a double-team coming and dished to teammate Ed Davis for a dunk. Few big men in the country could have made any two of those plays, let alone all three.
The biggest thing keeping Hansbrough from being a major factor in the high post is the fact that he is so good at playing nearer the basket. I anticipate this element of his game being developed at the pro level, when bigger, longer shot-blockers will cause Hansbrough difficulty in finishing in the paint. Not only has he added range to his jump shot, but Hansbrough also showed off another example of big-to-big passing when he lobbed the ball over the defense to Davis, freed to operate down low, for another score.
Still, as noted, Hansbrough spent most of his time working in the paint. Eight of his 12 shot attempts, as well as the majority of his 14 free-throw attempts, came off post-ups. Early in the game, the broadcasters noted Florida State's success in taking Hansbrough away by fronting the post during their regular-season matchup. Limited to 26 minutes by foul trouble, Hansbrough managed got up just nine shots--and, more tellingly, no free throws--in an 80-77 UNC win on Jan. 28. During the early going this time, Hansbrough tried to force the action a little, but the Seminoles' defense was not quite as aggressive once Wayne Ellington got going from downtown and Hansbrough was able to create some offense from the perimeter.
Hansbrough was not a factor in the pick-and-roll game, which could at least partially be traced to the absence of star point guard Ty Lawson. Hansbrough and Ellington were involved in a couple of side pick-and-rolls, but nothing really came of them, with Hansbrough having a tough time laying wood to Ellington's man. Where Hansbrough proved more dangerous was when the Tar Heels inbounded the ball from the endline. Using him first to screen, then to head to the post, North Carolina was able to get Hansbrough the ball in good position in the paint.
Defensively, what I saw was a mixed bag. I was not especially impressed with Hansbrough's individual defense in the post against a Florida State frontcourt that generally defers to star guard Toney Douglas. Here, Hansbrough was at times overly aggressive in fronting the post, which left him out of position. However, he was able to generate a couple of turnovers with this strategy. (Officially, Hansbrough was credited with five steals. I counted three.)
Where I was more impressed with Hansbrough was his ability to step out to defend the pick-and-roll. His footwork in these situations could use some polishing, but Hansbrough moved well laterally and could easily have drawn a charge on Douglas on a 50-50 call that went the Seminoles' way. He also fared well when switched out onto smaller players defensively. In this regard, I'd call Hansbrough's athleticism somewhat underrated.
One weakness of Hansbrough's game I had not previously considered is his balance. Too often, Hansbrough tends to lose ground while attempting to recover his balance. In one notable sequence, he surrendered a dunk when he went down trying to front the post. Patrick suggested that Florida State got away with a push-off, but the play looked relatively clean to me.
In an odd way, this could actually work to Hansbrough's favor on offense. Getting knocked off balance in the act of shooting might earn him extra trips to the free-throw line, which would help explain why Hansbrough eclipsed Dickie Hemric earlier this season to become the NCAA's all-time free-throw leader. Still, cleaning up this aspect of the game by improving his core strength would aid Hansbrough in defending the post and improve his shooting percentage in the paint.
It would be silly to argue that Hansbrough has been underrated as an NCAA player. He's a media darling whose numbers, great as they were, might not quite have matched his domination of the individual awards this time a year ago. However, I think the storyline that has developed around Hansbrough may have done him something of a disservice in terms of obscuring some of the skills he brings to the table in addition to his work ethic. Certainly, those skills play to his advantage as Hansbrough looks to make the transition to the NBA this upcoming season. After giving him a closer look, I feel more strongly about Hansbrough's chances to be a valuable role player as a professional if he can improve his core strength and continue to develop his midrange game.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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