Olivier Hanlan took a few minutes to warm up.
When I sat down at the media suite tucked away in the halls of Conte Forum, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I'd heard that Olivier was a really fun interview. But after waiting 20 minutes for him to show up, I started to worry that I was dealing with yet another young athlete who (understandably) begrudges talking to the media.
But BC's assistant director of media relations, Matt Lynch assured me:
"Don't worry, Olivier's on his way."
After the brief miscommunication, Olivier showed up and we were able to starting talking. I asked some more generic questions and it was apparent that everything other media types had said about the freshman guard were true -- his answers were polite, direct and thoughtful. I got his opinion on some of the more basic topics surrounding BC basketball, but I didn't feel like this was the same Olivier Hanlan that I've seen attack the basket relentlessly, seemingly welcoming the body contact as he slash to the rim. This wasn't the same fearless attitude that I saw come out when he drilled a three-pointer with Duke's Quinn Cook in his face -- and then proceeded to trash-talk all the way back to the BC huddle.
So I deviated from my set of questions a bit and tried to learn more about Olivier. What's your favorite play? What's your favorite thing to do on the court? He perked up a bit. That seemed to get his attention.
"My favorite thing is when we push it. When we go up and down, kind of a high paced game -- lot of possessions, a lot of shots. If I get a rebound, I try to dribble it up, try to attack, try to score."
Now that sounds more like what I've seen on the court. It's not rare to see Olivier trying to push the fastbreak, only to see the rest of his teammates lagging behind a little bit.
"Yeah, sometime's they're not running with me," he laughed. "They'll get used to it though."
His aggressiveness on the offensive end is apparent. Hanlan is second among ACC guards in free throw attempts, with over five attempts per game. But most fans of the Eagles know, it's the defensive end of the floor that needs the most improvement. Despite playing 34 minutes per game and initiating a lot of the offense, Olivier approaches defense with the same aggressiveness.
"Most of the time I'm playing defense on the opposing point. I'm just trying to pressure him and get him to do a few mistakes. If I make his life a little harder on the court, that's always going to help my teammates to play better defense."
He hopes that his intensity on defense will rub off on his teammates as well.
"It just feeds off....if one guy does it, two guys does it, everybody's gonna start doing it."
After a few minutes, Olivier really started to reflect the enthusiastic, passionate persona that fans see when they watch him play. We moved away from the cookie-cutter type of questions and eased into a more free-flowing conversation about basketball in general. I love talking hoops. Olivier loves talking hoops. I asked him to describe himself as a player, to give himself a scouting report -- what would that look like?
"I love to attack -- always aggressive on offense. Get in the paint pretty easily....And it's a challenge on defense, but I always want to guard their best player. I love the challenge."
Boston College basketball is taking a little while to warm up.
Two years ago, Steve Donahue took over and began the meticulous and delicate process of building a program from the ground up. After one season with the remnants of the previous regime, the Eagles underwent a complete overhaul. Coach Donahue recruited all of his own guys and really had no choice but to trot out a team full of freshman. 2012 was trial by fire. BC won just four games in the Atlantic Coast Conference and nine games overall. But it was plain to see that 2012 was hardly about 2012. It was about building chemistry, confidence, and a solid foundation.
While the final scores and eventual 9-22 record look horrible, it wasn't too difficult to see that BC had some decent bright spots. Ryan Anderson was clearly one of the most talented freshman in the ACC, Dennis Clifford offered unique size, and Lonnie Jackson displayed the elite shooting stroke that Donahue has been known to recruit. But it was obvious that the Eagles needed more. They needed more talent, more playmaking. Coach Donahue brought in Olivier Hanlan and Joe Rahon to take over most of the ballhandling duties. Both offered some promise, but I doubt that even Donahue thought these two freshman guards would be leading the Eagles in minutes per game this season.
The Eagles started the 2012-13 season looking like that same inconsistent and inexperienced team that finished in the cellar of the ACC the year before. Early season losses to Bryant and Harvard made Superfans restless. But after a few months, the improvement has become fairly apparent. The season has been riddled with close losses (AKA "moral victories"), but the team is battling to the very last minute, as opposed to collapsing with 6 minutes left on the clock the year before. It's no longer uncommon to see the Eagles hang with any team in the conference and they're even beginning to protect their home floor (despite the relative lack of student support).
On Tuesday night, the Eagles found themselves locked in a close game with the Maryland Terrapins. Maryland was coming off a huge upset win against #2 Duke and looked to continue their push to the NCAA Tournament with a win at Boston College. With 7:45 left in the game, Jake Layman hit a three-pointer to give the Terps a 45-44 lead. The game was close and was entering those crucial minutes that decide games. Last season, members of the media on press row commonly joke (kind of?) about how long the team will last before succumbing to superior talent and ease into a 12-point loss. The 2012 Eagles were younger, less experienced, and desperately lacking a closer at the end of games. That's where Olivier Hanlan comes in.
Over those final 7:45 minutes against Maryland, Hanlan scored 11 points. He initiated the offense and calmly knocked down tough shots as the shot-clock ticked towards zero. Quite frankly, he grabbed control of the game and didn't let go until the Eagles were walking off the court with a 69-58 win. Hanlan was dominant and looked every bit the star player that a team can rely on in clutch moments. But it didn't always go that smoothly.
Olivier can dominate, but the Eagles win as a team.
When the season began, the Eagles looked like a one-man show. Ryan Anderson was the hub on offense and the difference between winning and losing was solely based on how much Anderson could dominate. As the season has progressed, ACC teams have started to gameplan for Anderson more and things aren't coming quite so easily for the sophomore forward. Fortunately, he has teammates to back him up and Hanlan is leading that charge.
"We're definitely getting better [at sharing]. Ryan gets his touches, Joe gets his touches. Everybody gets touches. I mostly think whoever's playing well that day is going to get the ball and make a play."
The Eagles are certainly learning to play together as the season goes on. The chemistry that was so obviously lacking in November is starting to manifest itself as February turns into March. Most guys who end up on an ACC team had a great deal of success in high school or AAU. Most of them were the best player on their respective teams. Hanlan acknowledges that that's been part of the learning process.
"I'm a really competitive guy, I always want to win. But sometimes I think I can win on my own, and I'm learning that that's obviously not the case in college basketball. I have to find that balance of what's the best shot at that certain time. I've got to see how defenses are playing me -- if they're trying to trap the ball. Or if Joe [Rahon] has an opening on the wing with me attracting defense somewhere else. It's really just understanding and knowing what's the best shot the team can get in that certain situation."
That's not the kind of mentality that you typically expect from a freshman guard. Hanlan displays a level of maturity and accountability that's hard to come by at the collegiate level. An understanding about the importance of efficiency for a player so young and so talented is quite simply remarkable.
"I don't think it's about how many points you score. I think it comes down to your percentage...just what kinds of shots you're taking and how consistent you are."
On January 16th, BC had a chance to take down a very good Miami Hurricanes team at home. The Eagles are nowhere close in that game if not for Hanlan's 17 points while playing virtually the entire game (39 of 40 minutes). In the final seconds, Miami fouls and puts Olivier on the line to shoot three free throws to tie the game and send it to overtime. To say that he looked nervous at the line would be an understatement. After rattling in the first two free throws, Hanlan clanked the last one off the front of the rim and BC lost 60-59. In the post-game press conference, Hanlan took full responsibility and apologized for letting his teammates down.
On February 10th, BC was down to the wire against Duke. On a final possession, trailing by one, the Eagles put the ball in the hands of Hanlan and let him go to work. He had a screen from Anderson and Lonnie Jackson was running off another screen to get an open look. Hanlan scanned his options, didn't see anything that he liked, and took it himself. He created space and got a good look, but missed badly as Duke escaped with a 62-61 win. The scene at the post-game press conference was eerily similar. The Eagles were clearly deflated and fully aware of the opportunity that they had allowed to slip through their fingers. Hanlan calmly answered reporters' questions, broke down the final play, and promised to be better the next time. As Hanlan left the room, Steve Donahue just shook his head and said, "The only reason you can compete with Duke is because of a Olivier Hanlan."
Later that week, the Eagles found themselves in a familiar situation with the game on the line against Wake Forest. But this time it was Joe Rahon with the ball in his hands on the final possession. Olivier obviously wanted to be the one to win the game for his team down the stretch, but is beginning to learn that nobody can do it on their own.
"Ego plays a big role in it. Everybody was stars in high school. But the thing you have to understand in college is that you can't win with only one player. Nobody's going to score 40 points every night and win the game. It's a team sport."
On Tuesday night, Hanlan looked determined to prevent the game from coming down to another final possession. He took over and shredded the Maryland defense. But he didn't do it as his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, would do it. He didn't freeze out his teammates and hoist up bad shots no matter how many defenders were in his face. Instead, he looked more like the player to whom he compares himself: Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs. Now, that's obviously high praise since Parker is an elite NBA player and future Hall of Famer, but the ways that the two approach the game aren't all that different. Hanlan probed the defense and picked his spots wisely. He knew when to attack and when to slow down. There were moments when you could tell that he wanted to get out in transition, but instead recognized that his teammates were lagging behind and decided to run a set play instead. He bailed the Eagles out on several possessions, hitting clutch jumpers and crafty layups. But most importantly, he kept making the right play. Despite the fact that Rahon and Patrick Heckmann were having atrocious shooting performances, Hanlan simply couldn't resist the chance to set up a teammate for an open shot.
For Hanlan and Boston College, the future is bright.
The 2012-13 Eagles are competing and giving teams everything they can handle on any given night. The 2013-14 Eagles want to take that next step and turn these close losses into emphatic victories. Hanlan knows that it starts on the defensive end. As we were talking about some random basketball topics, I brought up Kentucky's Nerlens Noel and his recent ACL injury. Hanlan knew Noel relatively well from his time playing at the New Hampton School while Nerlens was at the Tilton School in Everett, Massachusetts. Noel's season (and likely his collegiate career, he's a top-5 NBA pick) ended after he tore his ACL and Kentucky's defense went down the tubes. Hanlan drew a comparison to the injuries that BC's Dennis Clifford has been struggling with this season. While Clifford isn't the shot-blocking savant that Noel is, 7-feet tall is 7-feet tall. And if the BC defense improves next year, Clifford's health will have a lot to do with that.
"It's obviously a little hard [without Dennis]. You have to focus harder on not getting beat [on the perimeter]. Because Ryan is a good player, but he's not a 5. He's not going to block shots or anything. You have to defend a lot harder knowing that you don't have a big man in the key who's going to change shots."
There have been debates among fans about whether or not it would be wise to shut Clifford down for the rest of the year, with hopes that he can be a defensive force next season. While I'm not sure if that's the proper approach, it's clear that Clifford is vital to the team's success on the defensive end.
Furthermore, Hanlan hopes that incoming recruit Garland Owens will provide some much-needed athleticism and toughness on both sides of the ball. Hanlan was Owens' host during his visit to BC and spoke very highly of the athletic wing.
"He'll probably be here in the summer so we'll start working out early and get him on the same page. He's a real athletic player so he's obviously going to help us on the defensive end. He's extremely long, extremely athletic and he'll really help defending on the wing."
As for Hanlan's own future, he has his sights on the NBA -- eventually.
"I'm confident. I think I can play in the NBA. I just have to keep improving and show from my freshman year to my sophomore year that there's just this big improvement. Getting stronger, more consistent and just becoming a better player every year."
And that's not just Olivier's own confidence talking. There's a lot of validity to his claim that he can play in the NBA. His size, strength and basketball IQ make him an intriguing point guard prospect. Perhaps most importantly is Hanlan's awareness of what he needs to work. He pointed out that he needs to become a more consistent three-point shooter and improve his jumper in general.
As of this moment, Hanlan is probably one of the least talked stud freshmen in the country. After just 26 games at the college level, his talent is undeniable. And his willingness to put in the work makes his future that much more exciting. He's the front-runner for ACC Freshman of the Year. And he's the centerpiece of an improving BC team with a bright future. He's probably not on any NBA teams' draft board or the subject of any national college basketball writers' featured column.
But don't worry, Olivier's on his way.