It was not unexpected when Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri decided to pick up power forward Tyler Hansbrough’s $3.3 million team option for the 2014-15 season, Hansbrough was a favorite of Head Coach Dwane Casey because of his toughness, discipline and willingness to accept an less than hoped for role with the team. Hansbrough was an asset last season and Ujiri is loath to give away his assets without a good reason.
Hansbrough was Ujiri’s initial answer to a Raptors roster that was perceived as soft by the rest of the league. The former Tar Heels NCAA champion has been anything but soft throughout his stellar four years of college and four years with what evolved into the “smash-mouth” Indiana Pacers. He is an instigator who is willing to foul hard, but draws more fouls on opponents than he hands out. Hansbrough was the perfect example for Casey to point to while explaining what playing tough and smart looks like.
“Coach was very excited about Tyler and that is how coaches are,” Ujiri told Pro Bball Report last summer. “You bring in players that play the way (the Coach) wants to play and they are excited, but generally everybody knows the caliber of player (Hansbrough) is.”
Hansbrough also knew what he was bringing to the Raptors and he was hoping it would lead to a bigger role than in Indiana.
“That is why I wanted to come here so bad, to be a big piece of the puzzle and ultimately help us as a team work to a goal,” Hansbrough said during preseason. “I feel like I could be a big part here.”
Up until Toronto made the season-saving trade with Sacramento, Hansbrough was a significant piece of the puzzle for Casey, but he couldn’t steal any time from Amir Johnson and was limited to around 20 minutes and about 6 points and 6 boards per game.
Hansbrough plays like an undersized physical center from an earlier era or an effective FIBA big man creating havoc in the paint by drawing fouls, finishing below the rim and generally doing whatever it takes to stop his opponent from scoring around the basket. A lack of even modest range on his jump shot and difficulty defending outside of 15 feet prevented this 6’9 instigator from winning a bigger role.
When Patrick Patterson arrived, Hansbrough briefly found a role playing opposite the Raptors new stretch four, but an injury opened the door for the veteran Chuck Hayes to show why he has survived in the league for so long as a 6’6 center and Hansbrough found his role diminished even further.
If Hansbrough could not have dealt with the change, he wouldn’t have been back for the upcoming season, but he handled it well and continued to contribute whenever he was called upon.
“Right now it is kind of what I have to do,” Hansbrough said. “Obviously I am not playing larger minutes, so when I get on the court and opportunity presents itself, I just have to be ready to help the team. That is the way I am looking at it, so when I go in that is what I am doing.”
Hansbrough played in 46 games after the trade and his minutes dropped by a third from the first five weeks of the season, however, he maintained his production per minute played and improved his shooting to over 50 percent from the field.
In the stretches of games where Casey called upon him, Hansbrough came through. Over a 7 game stretch in February, he averaged 18.1 minutes, 7.3 points, 58.1 percent shooting and 5.7 rebounds and the Raptors were 6 wins and a loss. In the Raptors 119-118 OT loss to the Thunder in March, Hansbrough showed why Toronto can still use his physical presence as he played 20 minutes and put up 4 points, 6 boards, 2 blocks and a steal, but more importantly was able to get Serge Ibaka to implode.
“I think they got a couple of offensive rebounds and we were battling and I just got my hands on it and when that happened, I just kind of ripped it away,” Hansbrough said. “(Ibaka) must have said something. I didn’t do anything to him. Usually there is some kind of confrontation, but I had nothing to do with that (technical foul).”
Hansbrough had ripped the ball out of Ibaka’s hand like a bully stealing a little kid’s lunch money and the Thunders big man felt the effects even after the Raptors power forward was back on the bench.
The Raptors situation hasn’t changed all that much from last season except for adding more big men that Hansbrough will have to compete for minutes with. Hayes is still around filling a mentorship role that Hansbrough is not ready for and James Johnson, Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira will all be hoping to find minutes in a rotation that is largely set before the season even starts. Hansbrough can do things none of his competitors on the Raptors roster can, but his own limitations mean winning minutes is not going to be easy and likely not even probable.
So is this Coach Casey favorite for his toughness a Raptors reserve for the season or has Hansbrough become trade-bait for another franchise in need of some toughness to change the culture or possibly to use in an unfavorable future playoff matchup?
Either way, Hansbrough works for the Raptors this season. Injuries happen and Hansbrough can soak up significant minutes for Coach Casey if one of Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson or Jonas Valanciunas is going to miss a game or more. Hansbrough accepted this role last year and stayed ready and there is every reason to believe he could do it again. Also, the best trade opportunities often come out of the blue and where Hansbrough is a bona fide NBA big man, he also has an expiring deal that makes him an excellent asset to include in a trade.
Keeping Hansbrough around for the upcoming season could only be seen as win-win proposition for Ujiri no matter what happens.