Without any big deals on the horizon, the best three big men the Raptors will be able to throw out there at the start of games will be Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough. Valanciunas has the starting center job locked up, so it’s between the 26-year-old Johnson and the 27-year-old Hansbrough to start at power forward.
The Raptors couldn’t have two more similarly talented players vying for the same starting job next season whose NBA paths have been so divergent. Johnson was the last high school aged player drafted before the NBA instituted the new age requirements. Hansbrough was a four-year college senior at North Carolina who won an NCAA Championship in his final season.
Johnson was drafted 56th by the Pistons in 2005 and four years later, Hansbrough was taken 13th overall by the Pacers. So where Johnson learned on the job in limited minutes with Detroit, Hansbrough was putting up huge numbers for the Tar Heels. It’s been four years since 2009 and both players find themselves competing for their spot in the Raptors rotation and each player can make a strong argument for why they should be the starter. Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri kicked off the competition with this quote.
“(Hansbrough) has become a mature player and that’s what you want with a power forward of that caliber,” Ujiri said. “I think he is a strong rotation player for sure.”
In this iteration of the Raptors, Head Coach Dwane Casey is getting his way and toughness is the new mantra in Toronto. Both Hansbrough and Johnson can lay claim to being tough gritty players.
Johnson was 2nd overall in the NBA in personal fouls per game last season and 18th in personal fouls per minute. Never shy about getting involved in the play, Johnson has slowly gotten better at avoiding unnecessary fouls, but he isn’t about to let a little contact deter him from doing what is necessary.
Hansbrough arrived in the NBA with the college nickname “Physco T” and while he’s outgrown that stage of his life, he is still respected for his willingness to mix things up in the paint or anywhere else on the floor. Hansbrough didn’t play enough minutes to crack the top 100 for personal fouls per game and his per minute foul rate was way back at 28th in the NBA – 10 spots behind Johnson, but where Johnson only rarely picks up technical fouls, Hansbrough tied for 52nd with 5 last year.
“(Hansbrough) is going to knock you down, Ujiri said. “I think we need a little bit of that.”
It will not be an easy call to decide which player is more willing to do the dirty work, but Physco T should feel right at home with his new teammates’ technical foul record. Kyle Lowry had 8, DeMar DeRozan 7, Rudy Gay 6 and it would be almost funny if it wasn’t true, but Quincy Acy had 5.
Toughness without defense would be a hollow quality and both Hansbrough and Johnson have been effective defenders.
Johnson held opposing players to below 40 percent shooting from every range outside of the restricted area last year and has done a very respectable job of patrolling the mid-range and extended three point line. However, where Johnson held opponents to 52 percent in the paint and 36.9 percent from deep, Hansbrough was 3 points better at these distances last season giving up 49 percent in the paint and 33.3 percent from three-point range.
Both players have averaged a steal per 36 minutes in their NBA careers, but where Hansbrough rarely blocks shots, Johnson has a per 36 minute career average of 2 per game. Still have to give Hansbrough the edge at disrupting opponents shooting, but overall, the Raptors should be a lot better at defending big men next season.
Both players have gotten better at rebounding since they came into the NBA and last season both were in the top 50 for rebounding per minute. Johnson collected a career best 7.5 rebounds per game and was 43rd in rebounds per minute. Hansbrough grabbed 4.6 rebounds in 16.9 minutes for the 38th best rebounding rate. Both players are almost as adept at grabbing boards in the offensive end as under their own basket and rebounding between them is almost a draw. If Valanciunas can build on his 9 boards per 36 minutes last season, this team might actually be able to compete on the glass.
Neither of these players has ever averaged 30 or more minutes in the NBA, but both of them could argue why they should. On a per 36 minute basis, Hansbrough has a career average of 16.3 points per game and Johnson is at 11.8 points. Hansbrough is just a far more aggressive offensive player than Johnson.
Hansbrough shoots a poor percentage from anywhere outside of the restricted area, but that is where he takes over half of his shots. He makes up for his poor shooting with the 5th best number of free throw attempts per 36 minutes in the NBA. This bumped his true shooting percentage to 52.7 percent last season. Anyone who watches Hansbrough play will notice his extreme aggressiveness under the rim and the NBA rewards aggression with trips to the free throw line. Not much of a shooter, Hansbrough has found a way to be an effective scorer.
“He keeps putting pressure on you and attacking the boards and attacking the rim,” Ujiri said.
Johnson doesn’t get to the line anywhere near often enough, but over the past 8 seasons, he has learned how to make a jump shot. Johnson is better at finishing than Hansbrough at any range including the paint and he has shot between 35 and 42 percent from mid-range since he has been in Toronto, but it’s his outside shooting that is intriguing. Over the past two seasons Johnson has been hoisting the occasional three-pointer and last year he was 5 of 12. A career true shooting percentage of over 60, Johnson is on the right track to become a better jump shooter. Hansbrough just hasn’t looked like he has that skill over the past couple of years.
Who Should Start?
“That question is for the coaches,” Ujiri said.
It’s hard to argue with Ujiri. It just isn’t obvious which one of these two young veterans should start or come off the bench. It is very obvious, however, that if the Raptors don’t add another quality big man to the mix this summer, both of these young veterans will be expected to soak up big minutes in next season’s rotation.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.