The Curious Case of Benjamin Hansbrough
Ben Hansbrough is a household name among basketball fans in the US – and not just because he is the younger brother of Indiana Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough. He happens to be an excellent basketball player himself. After averaging 18.4 PPG and shooting 43,5% from three-point range in his senior year for Notre Dame, he was voted the 2010-2011 Big East Player of the Year.
Although he was projected as a possible secound-round pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Hansbrough went undrafted (which some called “the biggest snub of the year”). There were lingering doubts about his ability to defend quicker, more athletic NBA guards and to create shots at the next level. He also missed the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago due to an ankle injury, which certainly didn’t help his stock.
Soon after the draft, Hansbrough announced that he had signed a one-year contract with FC Bayern München of Germany’s BBL, the highest division in Dirk Nowitzki’s home country. Ben’s signing caused quite a stir among basketball fans in München (or Munich, as you Anglophones call it) and Germany. He was even anointed an early candidate to win BBL MVP in 2011-2012 by some over-enthusiastic fans in online discussions. That may have been a bit too optimistic, but all experts agreed that Hansbrough would be a very good BBL player. And he should be.
Yet nine games into the 34-game BBL season, Ben Hansbrough has been turned into Bench Hansbrough. He hasn’t started a single game yet. In FC Bayern’s season opener in early October, Hansbrough logged 10 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists in 23 minutes – a good debut. Since then, his playing time has steadily decreased. Here’s an overview of his BBL minutes so far:
A grand total of 78 minutes in 9 games – or less than 9 minutes a game. Officially, he’s averaging 13 minutes, but that doesn’t take into account the three DNP-CDs. And even the 9 MPG are skewed by the fact that most of those minutes came in the first three games of the season and he hasn’t had any significant playing time in the last six games. (Seven, if you count the Eurocup game against Benetton Treviso last week, in which Hansbrough collected another DNP-CD).
So … what happened? Why is Hansbrough not playing? There are several answers to this, an “official” one and two “intelligent guessing” ones. Let’s break them down:
1. The official version – adjustment to the European game
As anyone who is familiar with both the US and the European version of basketball will tell you, there are a lot of differences between the two. Most American college players have some trouble adjusting when they first come to Europe (NBA and D-League players too, for that matter). It’s normal, it’s expected. And on top of that, they have to adjust to life in a new country, a new culture. These are college kids, most of whom have never been out of the US in their life (except perhaps for a vacation in Mexico, which Hansbrough told a Munich-based newspaper was his only time abroad). It’s not easy. Ask former Duquesne player Damian Saunders and former Pitt player Gilbert Brown, who were signed, respectively, by the BBL’s BG Göttingen and s.Oliver Baskets Würzburg before the start of the season – and who both left their teams this week to go back to the US, less than half a year after the start of their European adventure.
The official version for Hansbrough’s limited playing time is this: He has yet to adjust to the European game. And it’s true. In his first few games, when he was still seeing noteworthy playing time, you could tell that he was a little lost, not yet used to the European game. He often stopped right after center court, dribbling in place and waiting for either a pick or for his teammates to create something – instead of either calling a play or creating something for himself.
But let’s hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, here are a few quotes by FC Bayern’s head coach, Dirk Bauermann, from a recent SPOX article on Hansbrough:
“I was a big fan of Ben’s when he was playing for Notre Dame. But you know how it often is in life: It’s not until you see him in practice every day that you realize how far behind he is in the areas he was able to camouflage in college.”
“Ben is excellent with the ball. The problem is: As a playmaker in college, he had a lot of options from the pick-and-roll that are simply not available in European basketball.”
“And one thing he wasn’t taught in college – at all – is how to move without the ball. European basketball, however, revolves around playing off the ball. If he were playing for a different team, he might already be one of the most noticeable player’s in the league, because he would have the ball in his hands more often. But when it comes to more complex things, there’s a lot he still needs to learn.”
“I assumed that because of his toughness and his quick feet, Ben would be a good man-to-man defender, even though Notre Dame played a lot of zone. But he has a hard time understanding and implementing defensive concepts. That’s why a lot of things are still rudimentary and at an early stage.”
2. Coach Bauermann and FC Bayern’s roster
FC Bayern’s coach Dirk Bauermann is arguably the most successful and most famous German basketball coach. He’s also without a doubt the most controversial one. His critics – and there are many – say that he is too set in his ways. That he is arrogant. That he (literally) plays favorites. They criticize his defensive-minded style of play. His unflexibility. They say that once you’re in his doghouse, it’s almost impossible to get out again.
Bauermann has a very clear picture of his personal philosophy of basketball. It revolves around tough defense, allowing as few possessions and points as possible and milking the clock as much as you can. It uses a relatively small number of offensive plays that more often than not end with a shot shortly before the 24-second clock expires. “Free-flowing” is NOT the term that comes to mind when you think of Coach Bauermann’s offense. Neither are “fast” or “run-and-gun”. Seeing a Bauermann-coached team run the break is a rare occurrence. Ben Hansbrough is not an ideal match for this particular blend of basketball.
What’s more, Coach Bauermann has a core of players with whom he likes to work. Players he has known for years. Players who have played under him for years. Players who know his system inside and out. Players like thirty-year old Steffen Hamann, FC Bayern’s starting point guard. Hamann has played under Bauermann longer than any other player, both in the BBL and on the German national team. In the BBL, they worked together in Bamberg for six years. On the national team, they worked together from Hamann’s first international game in 2003 until Bauermann stepped down as head coach after Eurobasket 2011 in September. Bauermann and Hamann joined FC Bayern at the same time before the 2010-2011 season.
Much like Bauermann is Germany’s most controversial coach, Hamann is the country’s most controversial player. His critics – again, there are many – bemoan his poor outside shooting and say that he slows down the game too much. They argue that even his former strengths – defense and driving to the basket – have eroded. They say he is turnover-prone, that he blindly penetrates the paint and ends up throwing the ball away when he can’t finish or find anyone to pass the ball to. If you watched any of Germany’s games at Eurobasket 2011, you couldn’t help but notice that to some extent they might be right (even though Hamann is playing a solid BBL season so far … well, if you don’t look too closely at his abysmal free-throw shooting percentage).
What does all this have to with Ben Hansbrough, you ask? Simple: In any Bauermann-coached team, Hamann will be the starting point guard. Regardless of who else is on the roster. Regardless of Hamann’s limitations or of whether or not he’s having an “off” day, week, month or season. Hamann is Bauermann’s protégé, his “foster son”. Yes, Hamann is a point guard, Hansbrough more of a shooting guard. But Bauermann’s offense runs through Hamann.
Which is a problem, since Hansbrough needs the ball in his hands to be effective. And it’s not like Hamann and Hansbrough are the only two guards on the roster. Far from it. Three other players are fighting for minutes on the shooting-guard spot, and all of them have an advantage over Hansbrough:
There’s Demond Greene, another of Bauermann’s favorite players from his “old-boy network”. Greene is an athletic defender and good shooter who, like Hamann, has played under Bauermann for both Bamberg and the German national team. He joined FC Bayern at the same time as Hamann and Bauermann, but missed most of last season because of a torn achilles tendon. Freak of nature that he is, however, he’s back in good shape and is averaging almost 17 MPG this season. Offensively, his role and production have been limited, but he’s mostly used for his tenacious defense and experience.
FC Bayern’s most dangerous offensive guard is Je’kel Foster, who is logging 15.8 PPG and 29 MPG so far. Foster has spent the last five years in Europe, three of them in the BBL, winning the German championship with Oldenburg in 2009. He knows the game, he knows the league, he’s consistently excellent on both ends of the floor.
And then there’s former Georgetown guard Jonathan Wallace, who was instrumental in helping FC Bayern gain promotion to the BBL from Germany’s second-highest division ProA last year. He was the team’s topscorer in the ProA, but his defense tends to be patchy and he’s not exactly a model of consistency, sometimes following up a great shooting game with a real clunker. When FC Bayern signed Foster and Hansbrough in the off-season, Wallace was told by Coach Bauermann that his role would be extremely limited. He decided to stick with the team and fight for his minutes. And fight he did: Over FC Bayern’s first four games, Wallace averaged 14 points on 51% three-point shooting – which moved him past Hansbrough in the rotation. However, Wallace’s production has slowed down significantly since then.
So, Hansbrough does not really suit Coach Bauermann’s system, suffers from Coach Bauermann’s “nepotism” and from the amount of players on the two guard positions on FC Bayern’s roster. But does this really justify his basically non-existent playing time? Or are there other things at play? Has he somehow managed to get into Coach Bauermann’s doghouse (which, as I’ve mentioned above, is reportedly extremely hard to get out of)?
Which brings us to ….
3. Ben’s personality
This is a sensitive issue, so if you’re extremely fond of Ben Hansbrough (or you *are* Ben Hansbrough), you might want to skip this paragraph.
Anyone watching Ben Hansbrough during FC Bayern’s first few home games couldn’t help but notice that he was somewhat aloof, a little separate from the rest of the team. Almost as if he thought that as a college standout and NBA hopeful he was simply better than the rest of the team. As if he didn’t really have to break a sweat and would dominate effortlessly.
Granted, these are just my subjective impressions from watching Ben Hansbrough interact with his teammates and coaches before and during the games. I don’t know him personally, have never spoken a single word with him. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that his demeanor was only due to the fact that he was extremely focused on the game … but this doesn’t seem to bear out. My impressions are supported by statements I have heard from people close to the team and – although this is going to sound silly – from a friend of mine who saw the team partying at a popular nightclub in Munich. Before you dismiss my claims – I realize these sources are far from respectable, so here’s Coach Bauermann again, once again quoted from the SPOX article:
“I thought the integration would be quicker. I told Ben that he can’t expect our entire game to revolve around him. At first, Ben thought ‘What do these guys want from me? I’m the Big East Player of the Year! Give me the ball and let me do my thing!’ Because at Notre Dame that’s how it worked: The clock is running down, Ben gets the ball, Ben makes a play – by himself. That’s how he tried to play here as well in his first few weeks, always full steam ahead. But full steam ahead doesn’t work in Europe.”
His obvious frustration at his lack of playing time certainly doesn’t make it any easier for Hansbrough to feel like he’s part of the team. Case in point:
[Note: There was a picture here once. We had to take it down for legal reasons. It was a picture of the FC Bayern bench celebrating after a basket in the game against Benetton Treviso. Everybody was standing and cheering - except for Ben Hansbrough, who was sitting on the bench looking like he had just found out that Coach Bauermann's cat had urinated in his sneakers before the game. DISCLAIMER: I don't know if Coach Bauermann even has a cat. If he does, I'm sure it's a very well-trained cat that is not prone to urinating in players' sneakers. No animals were harmed during the production of this blog - but apparently, a few feathers were ruffled.]:
So there we have it. These are the reasons for Ben Hansbrough’s limited playing time. I’ll let you decide which of them is the primary cause for his lack of minutes. My bet is on a combination of all three. But there is hope for anyone who wants to see Hansbrough play – like me and a lot of other FC Bayern fans: Both Bauermann and Hansbrough are on record as saying that he is making progress in adjusting to the European game. My nightclub sources say that he seems to be less aloof than he was a few weeks ago! And even Coach Bauermann can’t bench one of his best and presumably most expensive players forever. At some point, he will have to give him the nod over Greene or Wallace (never over Hamann, that is simply not going to happen), even if only for a few minutes in a blowout. All Hansbrough has to do is use those minutes to showcase his abilities. He cannot cruise for even a second. As soon as Coach Bauermann calls his number, he has to be ready to provide an instant spark on the court. Let’s hope that he will get his chance soon – and use it. If not, I wouldn’t wager that he will finish the season with FC Bayern.
 You can still find the picture here, until FC Bayern decides to delete it (they have already deleted it from their Facebook page, but apparently they forgot that it can be found on their homepage as well. @FC Bayern: This reminder is free of charge).