In college basketball this season, three names stand out above all others: Tyler Hansbrough, Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin. ESPN.com makes a case for each as the nation's best player, and predicts the NBA future of all three standouts.
The Case for Tyler Hansbrough
How do you define the national player of the year? What checklist does one consult in deciding for whom to cast a vote? Is it the best and most talented player? Is it the player most valuable to his team? Is it the best player on the best team? Is it the player with the best NBA future? Is it the highest scorer or the guy with the most productive numbers?
It is none of the above. There is no POY checklist on which to tick off the appropriate attributes of the nation's top player in a given year. Like the U.S. Supreme Court's attempt to define what is obscene, I cannot define what makes a national player of the year. But I know it when I see it.
I see it in North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough.
Every national player of the year award went to Hansbrough last year, when he continued to dominate college basketball and led his team to the Final Four. If he stays healthy, Hansbrough will unquestionably become the first player ever to be named first-team All-America for four straight seasons. He is North Carolina's all-time leading scorer and on pace to become the ACC's all-time leading scorer. For many, that achievement would be enough to claim national POY honors.
Hansbrough will most likely be named national player of the year again for one simple reason: He delivers. Almost without fail, Hansbrough delivers against any competition in any setting. He does not win any beauty contests and is not the most fluid or graceful player, but he is productive and effective and never fails to bring it at the highest level.
His effectiveness is best reflected in his free throw numbers, which are accurate indicators of his willingness to stick his nose into the fray. Hansbrough lives at the free throw line, which is the best and most efficient place from which to score in basketball. For his career, the Missouri native has averaged about nine free throw attempts per game, and he's averaging 10 per game this season. No player in college basketball has shot or made as many free throws as he has.
Hansbrough is not the best athlete, although he is a very good one. He is not the best shooter, although he knocks down a high percentage of his shots. He is not the highest scorer, although he has scored more career points than any other Tar Heel. He is not the best rebounder, although he is a high-volume rebounder. He does not have the best NBA future, but he will be an NBA player for many years.
Hansbrough started off this season injured. Yet, when the big games arrived, he has delivered. Against Notre Dame, he had 34 points and dominated his matchup with Luke Harangody. Hansbrough had 25 points while beating up Michigan State. When he steps into the ring, Hansbrough brings it. Can you name any games in which he has been outplayed?
Hansbrough will not be the No. 1 overall selection in the NBA draft. There are other players who better fit the profile for a great NBA future. But in college basketball, Tyler Hansbrough is the most likely candidate to be the national player of the year. Again.
Bilas: Hansbrough will be a good NBA player, and he will play in the league for 10 years. But he is not likely to become a great NBA player. While he will outwork most players he goes up against and is guaranteed to make his team's practices and locker room better, Hansbrough may have difficulty getting shots off in the NBA. And he certainly will not be able to get to the free throw line as much.
Hansbrough scores almost 40 percent of his points from the line, and that will not happen in the NBA. Still, his work ethic will make him a solid pro, and he should be drafted in the top 20 of the 2009 NBA draft.
Fran Fraschilla: He has had one of the most productive careers in the history of college basketball and is deserving of all of the accolades he accumulates. How that translates to a productive NBA career is something else for debate.
I think Hansbrough will be drafted in the second half of the first round, and given the fact that NBA teams draft as much on projection as on production, I think he will go late in the first. Hansbrough's work ethic and attitude are unparalleled, and an improving midrange jump shot will add to his value.
However, at times in his career with the Tar Heels, he has struggled to score over taller and more athletic players. He will see this type of defender every night in the NBA. Ultimately, I believe his career in the NBA will be more Nick Collison and less Mark Madsen, meaning that Hansbrough could potentially have an 11-points-and-8-rebounds-per-game career. Considering what he has meant to college basketball, I hope I have underrated him.
Doug Gottlieb: I think he'll go in the top 20 since it's a down year for the NBA draft, but honestly, I think we'll one day look back and say that was probably too high.
Look, J.J. Redick was the ACC's all-time leading scorer, but he's not exactly lighting it up. Shelden Williams was dominant at Duke, but he's the last player on the bench in Sacramento. Adam Morrison was a prolific scorer, but not in the pros.
That in no way means those guys aren't great players. They did a lot for the college game, and so has Hansbrough. But in terms of being a star in the pros, I don't necessarily see it with him.
Now give Hansbrough credit. He has really improved his ability to shoot the basketball, and that will give him a chance to play more. I'm not discounting the possibility of his being a starter in the NBA one day -- just never the go-to guy.