Lewenberg: Hansbrough leads way in Raptors' culture change

Josh Lewenberg
7/16/2013 9:10:11 AM
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TORONTO - A week ago Masai Ujiri stood in front of local media, while addressing the highly anticipated trade of Andrea Bargnani, and promised a change in culture.

No longer would the Raptors be called "soft" or "pushovers" he proclaimed.

The addition of high-energy forward Tyler Hansbrough, made official on Monday, figures to go a long way in delivering on that promise.

"I think I can bring a lot of toughness to the team, a lot of hard work and effort," said Hansbrough, who was introduced at the Air Canada Centre after signing a multi-year deal to join the Raptors. "I bring some leadership, just [in] the way I approach the game and hopefully it'll rub off."

At 27, Hansbrough is a young veteran in the NBA -- having spent his first four seasons with the Pacers -- but is slated to become one of the elder statesmen on a Toronto team that featured eight players under 26-years-old last season.

Hansbrough, drafted 13th overall out of North Carolina in 2009, describes himself as a quiet leader, more of the lead by example type, but that's exactly the sort of influence Ujiri is hoping the former Pacer has on his new teammates.

"He plays under control but he's tough," said Ujiri. "He's going to knock you down. I think we need a little bit of that and we're excited to have him."

Hansbrough comes to Toronto with the reputation of a hard-nosed defender and a workhorse on the boards. The type of player who takes pride in getting under the opponent's skin, whether he's willing to admit to it or not. A soldier everyone wants to go to war with but no one wants to battle against.

Among other things, the former Tar Heel specializes in keeping the ball alive and fighting for extra possessions, something the Raptors could have used more of in 2012-13. Hansbrough was 17th in offensive rebounds per 36 minutes (minimum 800 total minutes played) last year, a category the Raptors struggled in, finishing seventh from the bottom.

"It's something I've done my whole life," Hansbrough said. "It's part of my game. Obviously I am gritty, I bring a lot of toughness but I can do more than just bring that."

Certain areas of his offensive game have developed, as Ujiri pointed out on Monday, but in many ways he's still limited with the ball in his hands. Hansbrough averaged a career-low 7.0 points in fewer than 17 minutes per contest with the Pacers last year. One area in which he excels is getting to the free-throw line. He was fifth in attempts per 36 minutes last season, ranking just below the likes of James Harden, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love.

In terms of the culture change, Hansbrough won't have to go at it alone, joining a frontcourt rotation that already consists of the similarly energetic Amir Johnson in addition to sophomores Jonas Valanciunas and Quincy Acy. Although Johnson and Valanciunas have both proven capable of stepping out and knocking down the mid-range jumper, spacing the floor may be a challenge with any combination of that group on the floor together (Note: Dwane Casey could opt for a smaller lineup on occasion, moving Rudy Gay, Landry Fields or the newly acquired Steve Novak to the four).

One thing is for certain, this group -- paced by a young and enthusiastic frontcourt -- will not be lacking in effort or competitive spirit, a refreshingly positive problem for Casey to have when he's eventually tasked with divvying up playing time.

"I think Coach [Casey] was very excited about Tyler," Ujiri said confidently. "That's how coaches are. You bring [in] players that play the way they want to play and they're excited."

Meanwhile, Hansbrough defused the idea of a pre-existing rivalry with Valanciunas after he committed a hard foul that sent the Raptors' rookie to the floor, landing on his previously injured hand back in February.

"I don't really remember that play until everyone started mentioning it to me," he explained. "It wasn't a big deal it's just sometimes the way I play. I'm sure we'll talk about it and probably laugh, hopefully. It just happened."

Both Hansbrough and Valanciunas were in attendance, with nine other Raptors players, when the team went out for dinner last week in Las Vegas. Most of the team has been in Vegas, with Valanciunas, Acy and Terrence Ross competing in the Summer League while several others are training together in player-organized workouts, getting a head start before training camp opens in a couple months.

"I'm big on that and I think Coach Casey is big on that too," Ujiri said of his team's offseason bonding. "Bringing guys together and you start building a bond and understanding each other a little bit. I think last week was good for us."

"[It] was very good for the team and for [the] guys to just be around each other and have a feel and have a sense of excitement even. You can get pumped up."

Point guard situation still in flux

Although the club is expected to add some depth in the backcourt with the addition of point guard Dwight Buycks, as reported last week, the deal has yet to be finalized.

Buycks is with the Raptors' Summer League team in Vegas and is hoping to play in this coming week's game and playoffs once the signing is made official.

The signing of Julyan Stone has been put on hold, at least for now, as the former Nuggets guard continues to rehab a couple of nagging injuries. Stone underwent hip surgery last year and battled a knee injury upon returning to the Nuggets lineup in January. He appeared in just four regular season games and two playoff contests with Denver in 2012-13.

Ujiri did not rule out adding the 24-year-old when and if he's healthy enough to pass his physical but said he'll have to go through at least a month of additional rehab before a possible signing will be revisited.

Amnesty decision on the way

The Raptors have not yet decided whether or not to use their lone amnesty clause, according to Ujiri.

Toronto is currently projected to be over the NBA's salary cap in 2013-14 but could avoid the luxury tax penalty by using the amnesty provision on the final year of Linas Kleiza's contract. Kleiza played just 20 games last year and will make $4.6 million next season.

Ujiri will continue to weigh his options and make a decision closer to Tuesday's amnesty deadline.

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