On Sunday night, in the hallway outside the visitor's locker room in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, Indiana Pacers interim head coach Frank Vogel was asked if he thought Tyler Hansbrough (who had just torched the Knicks for a career-high 29 points in the pacers 106-93 victory) was motivated to prove he belonged in the NBA. Vogel responded thusly: "I don't know if he is trying to prove anything, I just think that his motor is really just unparalleled in this league. Nobody goes harder than that kid. Nobody. Nobody in the league plays harder than Tyler Hansbrough. Whatever his motivation is, I just know he goes hard."
That night's victory served as an excellent exclamation point on what has been the best stretch of Hansbrough's young NBA career. Not too long ago, this seemed like the unlikeliest of scenarios…
After a rookie campaign stunted by a shin injury and then cut short by a mysterious and debilitating inner-ear infection, Tyler's second NBA season couldn't possibly be any worse than his first, right? Well, being sidelined by an injury is obviously frustrating; however, being benched due to the infamous "coach's decision" (despite being physically able to contribute) may actually be more maddening.
Jim O'Brien was Indiana's head coach for the first 18 months of Hansbrough's Pacer career. Tyler still doesn't know why he never fully gained O'Brien's trust, but he and his coach simply weren't on the same page.
When Hansbrough was finally healthy and ready to contribute, his minutes were still sporadic and unpredictable. There were flashes here and there, but Tyler was never given a legitimate opportunity to prove he belonged in the NBA, which was something he desperately desires to do.
Coming out of UNC, many critics claimed Hansbrough was an undersized power forward and hardly worthy of a late first-round pick. When the Pacers selected him with the 13th overall pick in the draft, the naysayers scoffed at Indiana for "reaching."
Hansbrough heard the whispers and welcomed the criticism. And he still heard the doubters as recently as January of this year, as he had yet to make a significant impact on the pro level.
However, Hansbrough's career arc took a sharp turn on 1/30/2011, when Indiana announced they had fired O'Brien and replaced him with interim Vogel. Vogel was/is an unabashed fan of the effort and talents Tyler brings to the table. Hansbrough's playing time immediately increased, and a corresponding spike in production followed.
HOOPSWORLD caught up with Hansbrough Sunday afternoon, prior to the start of the Pacers-Knicks game, to discuss his roller-coaster ride in the NBA thus far.
Hansbrough was first asked if his recent increased statistical output was simply a matter of seeing more time out on the floor.
"Yeah, it would be increased minutes, but also you know, I've been out of the game for a while, I'm just trying to get back," said Hansbrough. "I'm just starting to get in shape a little bit. I had been out for months with injuries, so it's going to take a while. I didn't have really a training camp. Just more experience and more playing time combined, it's all going to help."
He also discussed the frustration he dealt with sitting on the sidelines, and how the unfair shake he felt he was receiving fueled his efforts.
"It was frustrating, but I felt I should be playing. So I was working on my game all the time. You know, coming to practice, trying to prove my point. So it's not like I was just sitting on the bench and resting."
Tyler continued: "I mean, I was sharpening my tools. I knew I wasn't going to play, so I'd come into the gym an hour or an hour and a half before to work out. So I got better, but the more game experience, the more I improved."
The coaching change has obviously been welcomed by Hansbrough, something he didn't shy away from when questioned about it's effect on Indiana's 2010-2011 season. "The coaching impact has been really good for me. It's given me the opportunity to get on the floor get to show some things I can do. Also, it's a more clear message. In the past, you didn't know what to expect."
During the month of December, Hansbrough played in nine games. He averaged just nine minutes a night, scoring a scant 2.7 points to go along with 2.4 rebounds. He scored a total of 24 points in December.
Sunday night at MSG, Tyler exploded for a career-best 29 points in 40 minutes. Over his last five games, Hansbrough is averaging 22.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg, and 1.6 steals while shooting 55.7% from the floor.
After his great game against the Knicks, Hansbrough sat on a chair, surrounded by reporters, in the middle of the Indiana locker room, still in his jersey, with both knees heavily wrapped and both feet in buckets of ice. I told him what Coach Vogel's had just said about him a few minutes earlier. I asked him if he knew the reason why he played so hard. "I got a chip on my shoulder," he stated bluntly. "A lot of people don't feel like I deserve to be in the league. The coach didn't play me in the past because I don't know why, so I come in the gym every day, try to get a little better and prove a point."
Since I had Hansbrough's ear, and it was 'Selection Sunday,' I had to ask the North Carolina legend a few questions about the upcoming NCAA tournament. Here is the transcript of that Q & A:
HW: Switching over to UNC, obviously they took a tough loss (Sunday). But how do you feel about their chances going into the tournament?
TH: "I think they got a good shot. I mean, you know, obviously, they laid down today, but sometimes that happens. Hopefully they can get it together and make a big run."
HW: Is there any possible upside to losing a game like to day? Is it a wakeup call that can refocus everybody going into the Big Dance?
TH: "Yeah, the year we won it, I mean we lost our second game in the [ACC] tournament. It kind of refocused us towards the [NCAA] tournament; gave us some practice time. But obviously they're in the last game and they didn't really have that chance. I think, honestly, I think the tournaments kind of wear you out down the stretch. To be totally honest with you, I'd rather lose my last (pre-tournament) game than win my last game because you're more satisfied when you're winning, you're happy, you know, you just had a big win, so you're due for a letdown"
HW: What about another team I'm sure you're keeping your eye on, Notre Dame? (Tyler's brother, Ben, is a star guard for ND and was recently named the 2011 Big East Player of the Year)
TH: "Notre Dame, I hope they win it all. I mean, I'm a UNC fan, but my brother plays for Notre Dame so that's who I'm pulling for this year."
HW: So, if Notre Dame gets matched up against UNC, you'll have no qualms rooting for ND?
TH: "No question, I'm going for the Irish. It might **** a lot of people off, but that's the way it is."
While the Pacers were playing the Knicks, it was annocunced that UNC was awarded a #2 seed, and would be matched up with Long Island University. I asked Tyler about UNC's draw after the game…
HW: So UNC versus LIU in the first round, how do you feel about that?
TH: "Oh really, I didn't see that. Versus who? Well, I don't know who LIU is (chuckling), but hopefully we can win.
I mean, it's better than where we were last year! But I am pulling for Notre Dame though, don't get me wrong…"
We gotcha Tyler...