Published April 19, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS – The doubters have always been there throughout Tyler Hansbrough's career, from his prep star days in Missouri to his stellar career at North Carolina to these early years with the Indiana Pacers. Same questions, too.
Can he defend? Is he athletic enough? Can he get his shot off? Is he too small?
The answers, too, have remained the same. The man once known as "Psycho T" has continued to succeed beyond expectations. Not only has he made it in the NBA, he is a starter and a key contributor to an Indiana team that is giving Chicago all it can handle in their first-round playoff series.
He hears the critics, but disagrees with a defiance that borders on cockiness.
"You always have to have confidence," Hansbrough said. "I always felt like I should be on the court because I feel like I'm better than my opponents. That's something that you have to carry with you."
Whether he's imposing his will on the boards or diving for a loose ball headed for someone's lap in the first row, Hansbrough's intensity embodies the effort the upstart Pacers have displayed against Chicago.
The Bulls have won both games, but the young Pacers have pushed them.
Hansbrough averaged 16.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in March as the Pacers made their playoff push. He scored 22 points in the opener at Chicago, then struggled in Monday's loss, scoring six points on 2-for-12 shooting. For a player who won a national title at North Carolina and two state high school titles for Poplar Bluff (Mo.), just being close doesn't cut it.
"It's very frustrating," he said. "We played with them. We were right there but we let it slip away at the end."
Hansbrough certainly has Chicago's attention.
"He's a good player," Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He's hard playing, he can shoot the ball, put it on the floor. You have to give him a lot of credit."
Hansbrough will make his home playoff debut Thursday in Game 3.
"This is what I was dreaming about as a kid," he said. "I've always been a part of success. We'll see what happens. Just got to go out there and prepare."
Pacers interim coach Frank Vogel said Hansbrough's success starts with his work ethic.
"You don't do what he did in college and not know how to succeed," Vogel said. "He's got a motor that you see on the court, but you see him in practice, and in drills, one-on-zero, he's going as hard in those drills as he is on the basketball court. Guys like that succeed."
Hansbrough is one of the most popular Pacers, but Indiana fans who were gathered at Conseco Fieldhouse when he was drafted in the first round in 2009 offered a mixed response when his name was announced.
Team president Larry Bird confidently predicted Hansbrough's success.
"Not everybody's going to be happy with who you take, but once they see him play, they'll be very surprised," Bird said that night. "He fits in well with us, and he's going to have a great career."
Hansbrough didn't win over fans immediately. As a rookie, he missed training camp, the preseason and the first four regular-season games with a right shin injury. Once he returned, he became a fan favorite before his health became an issue again. An inner ear infection that caused dizziness and made him sensitive to light cost him the rest of his season.
He returned healthy for this season, but he couldn't crack the starting lineup and at times, couldn't even get into coach Jim O'Brien's rotation.
"I always had a chip on my shoulder, on down from O'Brien not playing me and us not really getting along, just because I felt I should have been on the court," he said.
The Pacers fired O'Brien after a 17-27 start this season. Vogel committed to giving Hansbrough time.
In one special week last month, Hansbrough had 29 points and 30 points in back-to-back wins over the New York Knicks, then had 29 points and 12 rebounds against the Bulls in a 115-108 overtime win on March 18.
His ability to draw fouls is rare for a young player; just like at North Carolina, he spends a fair amount of time at the free-throw line. His ability to run the floor makes him a threat in transition, and his sheer desire gives his team second chances.
Hansbrough has added a mid-range jumper to his post game, and as opponents have gained respect for it, he's learning to take advantage by putting the ball on the floor.
"As a player, I was always trying to develop my game with the assistant coaches," he said. "Mid-range, post development, whatever I could do to score. As a player, I'm always trying to get a little better. My next step is developing my left hand."
Hansbrough's emergence was key for the Pacers because he stepped up while guard Mike Dunleavy was out with a broken left thumb to give the team another scoring option.
"When you're called upon, you've got to make the best of it," he said.