The Alternate Path To Establishment

Photo via Genseric 455 on Flickr

I’m a sports anchor/reporter by trade. The sports television world is an exciting, fast paced industry, one that I had longed to be a part of for most of my childhood, so having been lucky enough to land a job not long after college was a dream come true.

The one part of the profession that I find both frustrating and exciting is the lack of an archetype for the blueprint of success. Talk to 20 successful reporters and you’re apt to hear 20 vastly different stories for how they got to where they are. To be sure, most professions have a degree of variance between starting point and the journey to ultimate end point, but the wiggle room for differences is slight compared to the media world.

Lawyers attend Law School and work their way up at their firm, hoping to one day make partner. Doctors attend medical school, complete their residency and work their way up in either private practice or a larger organization. I’ve met reporters who started in radio, been newspaper reporters, spent time in the public relations world, I even ran across one who started as a secretary on a political campaign. In the TV world, the ends justify the means.

Similarly, the NBA is hardly a bastion of concrete paths to establishing oneself, be it as a star, role player or career-long bench warmer. Careers and roles are fluid, for most they are in a constant state of flux. This lack of a yellow brick road to firm ground is what makes the League simultaneously thrilling and frustrating as we watch players rise and fall, overachieve and bust before our eyes. Even within the context of the unknown, the lack of sturdiness to both reality and our perceptions of it, the series of events that have led up to Tyler Hansbrough’s blistering March are unique.

Perhaps no college star in recent memory has at once reaped the benefits and seen the damning effects of college stardom as the former North Carolina standout has.  A household name seemingly by the end of his freshman season, few players in the last decade have spent so much time in the spotlight so as to be simultaneously revered by college fans and opponents, but equally dissected by pro fans.

Even Adam Morrison – riddled with deficiencies that we could all see would manifest them at the pro level eventually – was given a fighting chance in the beginning. Hansbrough, quite possibly the best college player of his decade (from a career accomplishment standpoint) was written off as an NBA player the second his career at Carolina ended with a national championship. The stigma of his physical limitations was enough to overshadow a four-year run of consistent production that has rarely been seen in arguably the college games most storied conference.

Shortly after being drafted by the Indiana Pacers – he simply vanished from national awareness. Plagued by a prolonged bout with vertigo and failing to click on any level with then head coach Jim O’Brien, Hansbrough went the way so many predicted for him, disappearing into obscurity, the fact that it was matters beyond his control didn’t matter.

In late January, O’Brien was fired and interim head coach Frank Vogel immediately pledged increased playing time for a now healthy Hansbrough who has averaged 27 minutes a night over the last two months. But all we want to talk about is March, the time when the second-year pro used to take center stage at Chapel Hill, a titanic force amidst the college game. Now he is doing it for the Pacers, posting averages of better than 20 points and 8 rebounds over his last 10 games, numbers that scream breakthrough, finally getting it, establishing himself, arriving on the scene.

At the risk of creating an uprising in Tar Heel Nation, we know this degree of production is unlikely to last. Hansbrough, for all of the improvements he is making in his game, is simply capitalizing on scenarios where defenses aren’t paying him the level of attention afforded a player producing his kind of stat line. If and when this does happen, his numbers will likely return to the much more believable line of 15 and 6, his averages since Vogel took over the reins in Indiana. But this isn’t about whether or not Hansbrough will continue his ascent to become a full fledged star or regress to his likely mean and operate as a solid starter for the next decade in the Hoosier State. This is about how he arrived at being the focal point of this conversation.

We live in an age where players develop before our eyes, each step of the way analyzed and assessed. Somehow, Hansbrough has managed to avoid this scrutiny, his growth as a player executed behind the scenes during his exile on the bench. Yet, this may be exactly why he has managed to emerge as a viable option for the Pacers since his reemergence. Had he been treated in the same manner as his equals at the college level – the Durant’s and Beasley’s of the world – he undoubtedly would have been set up for failure under the heat of the spotlight. At the same time, rare has been the player so accomplished in college, who has the bar set so incredibly low. Maybe that’s why this sudden explosion over the last couple of weeks has the NBA buzzing.

At this point Hansbrough’s extended test run with big minutes is akin to seeing a movie where expectations are low, but the finished product is above average so the reviews are great – isn’t it? The only problem is his career happens to be a film we’ve already seen, but has just been redone slightly better a few years later. The forward has already spent so much time in the limelight that by the time his NBA career began his strengths and weaknesses were widely known and his ceiling as a player appeared to be reached, he’s just adapted.

Maybe it’s appropriate that Hansbrough’s path to emergence in the NBA is unconventional as most fans would likely agree that it mirrors his role as an unconventional player. While most college stars develop in the spotlight and further their growth or fade away as the light grows brighter, Hansbrough instead departed into the shadows before returning to outdo initial expectations. For a player who has built himself on a tireless work ethic and hustle this trajectory only stands to further entrench him as the archetype for the heralded college star turned forgotten commodity in the NBA.

Seth Carstens