Tyler Hansbrough epitomizes the recent trend of Pacers draft picks: light on tattoos and convictions but heavy on college experience.
Like Roy Hibbert and Danny Granger, Hansbrough was a four-year college player. He joins other Pacers such as Dahntay Jones, Brandon Rush, Earl Watson, Travis Diener, Mike Dunleavy, Luther Head, Solomon Jones, Troy Murphy and A.J. Price as players who spent three or more years playing college basketball.
Yes, the Pacers have come a long way since Stephen Jackson and Ron Artest were garnering bad press in the Hoosier State. Jermaine O'Neal, Jonathan Bender and Al Harrington (none of whom played any NCAA basketball) were once the foundation of the franchise. Now, polished, prepared and disciplined players fill Jim O'Brien's roster.
"It helps (Hansbrough) out a lot," said fellow rookie and four-year collegiate player Terrence Williams. "It helps him understand the game. It helps him be more mature about situations."
Maturity is key, particularly when you're winning Wooden and Naismith Awards and a National Championship at North Carolina one moment and struggling to find minutes off the Pacers bench the next.
"He's limited minutes-wise because of his shin difficulty," said O'Brien of Hansbrough who missed the first four games of the year as well as the entire preseason. "We're not throwing many things at him at once. We just want him to keep up his aggressiveness and he'll pick up things as he goes along. He studies a lot of tape with our coaches. He spends a lot of time with them."
"It's been pretty frustrating, but it's something I want to get better at," Hansbrough said of the injury bug. "I want to go out there and be the player they want me to be instead of just limping out there and (trying) to play hurt. I feel like the shin is getting better."
As the shin issues subsided, Hansbrough revealed his aggressive side.
Despite playing only 14 minutes in his first game, Hansbrough shot 10 free throws and finished with 13 points and five rebounds.
"It will come when it comes," O'Brien said of Hansbrough's playing time. "Meanwhile he's getting to the foul line, he's being aggressive and he is still trying to find his way because he didn't have a preseason."
For Hansbrough, staying aggressive is the only way to ensure he keeps himself in O'Brien's rotation.
"That's just my style," said Hansbrough. "I just try to play the way I play. I don't try to change up my game."
Hansbrough's aggressiveness, particularly in the paint, should pay dividends down the road for the Pacers. Indiana had a negative Player Efficiency Rating differential at the power forward position last year (18.6 compared to the opponents' 19.5) and sorely needed another interior presence when they took Hansbrough with the 13th pick in the 2009 draft.
The Pacers currently still have a negative PER differential at power forward (Troy Murphy's injury has been a major factor in this), but the early returns for Hansbrough have been encouraging.
"It's just a matter of getting used to the NBA – the quality of the athlete, the size and the quickness – and then learning the whole new system, defensively and offensively," explained O'Brien. "There's a lot thrown at rookies."
The biggest demand for some rookies – as O'Brien mentioned – is dealing with NBA athletes. And had he left UNC early like so many other college stars, Hansbrough might not have been able to handle bigger, faster players.
"He's a lot bigger (than in college)," said former college rival and current teammate Roy Hibbert. "He put on about 20 pounds of muscle, so he's like a tank. He's stronger and more durable."
"He started out last year at 245 and by the end of the year he was 235," added O'Brien. "He started this year at 245 and he'll probably lose 10 pounds along the way. But he's physically ready to play at this level. He's a very strong guy."
And that added strength could help turn Hibbert and himself into a formidable low post duo.
"He's been an extremely effective low post scorer and I'm trying to come into my own in the low post," Hibbert said. "When we're out there we try to hit the boards as much as possible and try to create as many offensive opportunities as we can while we're out there."
Currently Hibbert is averaging 11.7 ppg compared to Hansbrough's 7.75 ppg. For Hibbert, Hansbrough's acclimation wasn't much of a surprise.
"I knew what he could do," said the former Hoya. "I played against him in the Elite 8 a couple of years ago. I knew how effective he can be.
"I think Tyler and I can create damage down low," Hibbert continued. "And on the defensive end I think we can become a good defensive presence – both of us."
Last season the Pacers yielded nearly 110 points per 100 possessions, but as of Tuesday they ranked 11th overall in the NBA with a defensive efficiency rating of 100.2.
The improvements are encouraging, but as a rookie Hansbrough still sees opponents that give him fits.
Maggette is a quick guy," Hansbrough said of the Golden State forward who dropped 21 points on the Pacers. "He's pretty big… (I don't see guys that quick) every night."
But these are lessons that Hansbrough is sure to learn. The good news is that Hansbrough has the right attitude, patience and desire to improve.
"He's definitely a hard worker," said Williams. "He competes every play. He'll run through a wall for a rebound."
"You've got to pay attention," said Hansbrough. "Listen in practice and see what the coach wants."
Looks like four years of college paid off.