Scott Fowler

In former UNC star Tyler Hansbrough, Hornets find an enforcer

Tyler Hansbrough has come back to North Carolina, vowing to bring the same sort of energy and toughness he did in a four-year career in Chapel Hill as the highest-scoring and one of the most honored UNC players ever.

This time, however, Hansbrough will be in a far different role. He will be a reserve for the Charlotte Hornets, playing modest minutes on a team that is remaking itself on the fly.

Hansbrough, 29, signed Wednesday what he said was a one-year deal with the Hornets. “I can come in here and add some toughness,” Hansbrough growled at his news conference, and anyone who remembers him from his “Psycho T” days in Chapel Hill knows that will be true.

But how much will Hansbrough really play? Coach Steve Clifford sounded uncertain.

Said Clifford of the newest Hornet: “He’s a guy that … when you don’t have juice you can throw him in there and he can change the intensity of your team. Just like a guy who’s a great shooter. Almost like a specialist.”

In today’s NBA, Hansbrough is a throwback – a bruising, back-to-the-basket post player on a league that now places a higher value on pacing and spacing. The Hornets already have one throwback in Al Jefferson. The rest of their power forwards (Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky and Spencer Hawes) are more of the new breed of “stretch fours” – players who can shoot from outside and are more comfortable when facing the basket.

Hansbrough is more physical than any of those guys on defense, but on offense he’s never going to be a 3-point shooter. And his scoring average has gone down for four straight seasons. After the worst season of his NBA career last season in Toronto, he knows this one-year deal will be yet another audition for his future in the league.

“I need to prove I can stay in the NBA,” Hansbrough said, “and I plan on doing that.”

Was it a good deal for the Hornets?

Yes – in a limited way.

Hansbrough certainly is better than Jason Maxiell, the Hornets’ third-string center last season. Hansbrough isn’t the shot blocker Bismack Biyombo was, but he’s going to catch the ball more often when it is thrown to him.

In my thinking, the Hornets have gotten slightly better at a lot of roster spots this offseason (Hansbrough’s signing puts them at 15 guaranteed contracts for 2015-16). If you were numbering players in terms of ability, the Hornets stayed the same at numbers 1, 2 and 3 (Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and probably have upgraded a little bit at most of the slots from 4-10.

The problem is that they need a better “1” – a superstar who could push everyone down one notch on the ladder and simultaneously elevate everyone’s game. The Hornets are no closer to having one now than they were when they were reincarnated in 2004.

Let’s get back to Hansbrough for a moment, though, and let him talk about:

▪ Playing in the state of North Carolina again after winning a national title at UNC in 2009. “I had some good times here in college. Coming back home – I’m not going to lie – it played a factor. I’m not a big-city guy as it is, so this is a place I’ve always wanted to play. I’m excited to be here.”

▪ Getting booed in Charlotte when he played for Indiana and Toronto. “When I first started coming back when I first got into the league, they were cheering me. Then eventually, I started hearing a few boos here and there. Then when I got to Toronto (in 2013), it was just straight boos. I’m a player that plays hard, mixes it up, so people sometime have that reaction.”

▪ On the irony that he is coming to the Hornets right after Gerald Henderson leaves them (Henderson broke Hansbrough’s nose on a hard foul during a UNC-Duke game in 2007): “No hard feelings here. I know how competitive Gerald is. We could have played together. I know when I play against Gerald, he’s going to bring it and I’m going to bring it.”

Hansbrough will become the third former Tar Heel on Michael Jordan’s team, joining Williams and P.J. Hairston. That will cause some howling among the anti-North Carolina crowd, but general manager Rich Cho doesn’t care.

“We feel like we have gotten bigger and added some shooting as well,” Cho said of the free-agency period in general. “And Tyler is different than our other frontcourt players. He plays with physicality, he can run the floor. … He brings a lot of energy.”

The Hornets have added offense, for sure. Hansbrough was the first player they have signed in free agency you honestly could say is noted for his defense. When Clifford was asked about how he was going to coach this season, he joked: “I’m giving the defense to the assistants, and I’ll give you all their cellphone numbers. I’ll just be coaching the offense.”

Hansbrough, though, will be more about defense. I think Clifford ultimately will like him a little more than he realizes right now, because Hansbrough presses most of the buttons the coach wants pressed.

The Hornets will need an enforcer. I think they just found one.

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