TORONTO - Tyler Hansbrough hasn't played in over three weeks but his long-awaited return to the court could be around the corner.
The Raptors forward has been sidelined for 11 games, longer than originally expected, after aggravating a lingering left ankle injury against his former team in the Jan. 1 win over Indiana.
Although there's still no clear timetable - he'll be a game-time decision in Philadelphia Friday, the case for most of this month - Hansbrough has ramped up his work and believes he's made significant progress.
"Today was the most I've done on it," Hansbrough told TSN.ca prior to Wednesday's contest. "It's definitely getting better, just a few steps but it's improving. I feel like I'm right around the corner from playing."
Participating in practice to some degree for nearly two weeks, Hansbrough continues to work with Toronto's renowned training staff to strengthen his ankle.
Originally categorized as day-to-day with an ankle sprain, Hansbrough was removed from the injury report altogether and is now simply being listed as inactive while the team waits for him to say he's ready to go. The 28-year-old has been hesitant to rush his return, opting to play it safe and wait until he's close to 100 per cent, according to team sources.
"Obviously I want to be out there but it's just one of those things where it's taken a while," Hansbrough said. "But it's getting better."
"There was really no set schedule," he continued. "I'm improving, I know that, so when I'm there, I'm there and I'll be ready."
The team estimated he would need four-to-five days of rest after he missed his first game with the ankle ailment, and third of the campaign, in Washington on Jan. 3. The injury has turned out to be more intricate than they anticipated. "It's more of a bruise," Dwane Casey said last week.
"I don't want to rush him back and I don't think he wants to rush back either," said Casey ahead of the Bucks game on Jan. 13. "If he had to go, if it was a playoff game tonight, he'd probably be able to go."
That was 10 days ago and still, Hansbrough and the Raptors are taking things game-by-game.
"I sat down with the trainers and we kind of came up with when we thought I'd be ready," said the forward. "I feel like I'll be on the court very soon."
In his fifth NBA season and first with the Raptors, Hansbrough is averaging 5.5 points - a career-low - and 5.0 rebounds in 28 contests. Signed to a two-year deal last summer, his contract is only partially guaranteed for next season.
With the former Pacer sidelined, a couple of newly acquired bigs have stepped up and seized the opportunity in Casey's generally strict nine-man rotation. Often the first player off Toronto's bench, Patrick Patterson is averaging 9.4 points and 4.9 rebounds since coming to the Raptors in the Rudy Gay trade last month. Chuck Hayes, also acquired in that deal, has earned the trust of his coach with his veteran savvy on defence.
Although he was playing well before getting hurt - even supplanting starter Amir Johnson earlier in the season - and Casey is a strong believer that you shouldn't lose your job to injury, the Raptors coach has a tough decision to make when Hansbrough is finally able to make his return.
Certainly it's not a bad problem for a coach to have, but what will Hansbrough's role be when he's back in uniform and how will Casey juggle his five bigs?
"We'll see," Casey said after practice Thursday. "Tyler's a valuable part of what we were doing earlier, his intensity and what he brings to the table is important but those other guys have really set the tone for the second unit."
"I'm sure he's not going to be able to come in and go full-bore for big minutes but we want to get him back in the rotation at some point."