Tyler Hansbrough has been extra this season. When he plays for the Charlotte Hornets, he usually plays after the outcome has been determined. Before Sunday, he had played only once in the previous 10 games, and that was 2½ minutes at the end of a blowout victory against the Philadelphia 76ers.
It’s as if rotation players sit at the big table, and Hansbrough has to sit at the little table with the kids.
On Sunday, however, Hansbrough was promoted. Charlotte coach Steve Clifford sent him onto the floor with 2:45 remaining in the third quarter and the Hornets leading the Milwaukee Bucks 58-57.
Al Jefferson, Charlotte’s center and best rebounder, had injured his left calf less than 7 minutes into the game. Clifford needed rebounds.
The Hornets also needed energy. They weren’t lethargic, necessarily. But the game began at 2 p.m., a tipoff time with which players on both teams are unfamiliar. Hansbrough didn’t care.
Clifford said he’d be reluctant at that juncture to insert some players who had not played earlier. But with Hansbrough, he didn’t worry. Hansbrough will give you what he always gives you. Send him out and watch him go — and go, and go.
"He’s always ready," Hornets’ guard Kemba Walker says.
Walker (22 points, including Charlotte’s final four) was the star of the 87-82 victory against Milwaukee at Time Warner Cable Arena. But do the Hornets win without Hansbrough?
"I thought Tyler was critical in the fourth quarter," says Clifford.
Clifford picks up the stat sheet and looks at the numbers.
"He is a killer worker," the coach says about Hansbrough. "He had two rebounds and he was one for one (on field goal attempts), but he brings physicality to the floor."
Hansbrough played 8:55 minutes, his longest stint of the season. His numbers were pedestrian: 2 points, 2 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, 1 assist and 3 personal fouls.
"Tyler made a lot of plays," says Walker. "A lot of them won’t show up on the stat sheet."
You hear about players whose work doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. But if their work doesn’t make the stat sheet, what kind of plays are they making?
Hansbrough is relentless energy. He contests everything. Some players impose themselves on the opposition. Hansbrough flings himself at the opposition. At 6-9, 250 pounds, he isn’t going to overpower NBA big men. But he’s going to try.
After the game, he puts on a hooded Hornets’ sweatshirt and leaves before his teammates do. I catch him in a hallway and tell him I could always find him on the court because wherever he went a body went flying, and it often was his.
Hansbrough laughs and says he has always played with energy.
"I’ve been working really hard even though I wasn’t able to play," he says. "So it was just a matter of being ready when the time came to be ready."
Hansbrough has always been a superior offensive rebounder. His signature play came when he went through two Bucks for an offensive rebound, put the ball up and scored.
The Hornets are three games above .500, and their lineup is loaded. If the Hornets are healthy, Hansbrough might be little more than a change of pace.
But I guarantee they’ll need him. The Hornets have three players you’d consider physical. They have Jefferson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (who probably is out for the season) and they have Hansbrough.
His numbers are unlikely to dazzle. He plays with a lack of subtlety, and if lack of subtlety were an official NBA statistical category, he might lead the league. Alas, it’s not.
But when Hansbrough is on the court, his teammates know it. As hard as he works, opponents know it, too.