BOSTON – When he was about 8 years old and accompanying his dad to his NBA games, Tim Hardaway Jr. used to grab a basketball and wander onto the court beyond the 3-point arc. There, he’d attempt NBA 3 after NBA 3.
It’d be years until he’d make them regularly and even longer until he could use his standard stroke rather than pushing the ball. But he kept at it.
“I’d just be hoisting those,” Hardaway said. “I wouldn’t shoot mid-range a lot, just shoot 3s, just to challenge myself.”
No wonder Hardaway is having such an easy time transitioning from the college to NBA arc, converting 37.7 of his 3-pointers.
He’s the only rookie to shoot better from beyond the arc in the NBA than he did in each of his college seasons (minimum: 30 attempts). In fact, no rookie coming straight from college has shot so well on 3-pointers on so many attempts since Stephen Curry four seasons ago.
Before Phil Jackson became James Dolan’s false idol, Hardaway was the great hope of New York fans, and it’s easy to see why they’ve swooned.
The Knicks didn’t have a first-round pick the year before selecting Hardaway No. 24 last June, and barring an unexpected trade, they won’t have one this June, either. Hardaway is the youngest player on the Knicks, the only team among the NBA’s 10 oldest (weighted by playing time) not in playoff position.
Simply, he’s the brightest hope in one of the NBA’s darkest situations.
The 21-year-old Hardaway has posted 2.2 win shares this season, a strong mark for his age but hardly elite overall. But let’s expand the parameters further – players under 28 with at least 1.5 win shares this season. Hardaway is the only qualifying Knick. Every other team besides the back-to-back defending champion Miami Heat have multiple such players.
You can certainly forgive the Heat for lacking productive young players, Mario Chalmers excepted. They’re obviously doing quite alright.
The Knicks? Not so much.
That’s why New York fans latch onto players like Hardaway, and before him, Iman Shumpert.
Like Hardaway, Shumpert was a first-round pick bookended by two years of the Knicks lacking first-round picks. Shumpert had a promising rookie year and a strong second season, but in his third year, he’s regressed as lofty expectations rose too high.
Can Hardaway better navigate the Knicks quagmire? Maybe.
It starts with his advanced 3-point shooting.
Hardaway clearly arrived at the University of Michigan with shooting skills. He says he aced Michigan coach John Beilein’s famed challenge, making 50 3-pointers in five minutes with a single ball and rebounder, on his first try.
Last season, with future first-rounder Nik Stauskas on campus, Beilein’s drill went from 50 in five to 60 in five. Again, Hardaway cruised, peaking at 68 or 69, as he left Ann Arbor after his junior year.
“I mean, I’m a shooter,” Hardaway said. “So, that’s what I do. I shoot the ball.”
And for right now, that’s about it.
Hardaway, averaging 10.0 points per game, has been extremely one-dimensional in New York.
Of the 46 shooting guards who’ve played at least 1,000 minutes this season, Hardaway has the lowest offensive-rebounding percentage, second-lowest defensive-rebounding percentage, lowest total rebounding percentage, third-lowest assist percentage, eighth-lowest steal percentage and eighth-lowest block percentage.
He’s finished just 43 pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler with a shot, turnover or trip to the free-throw line all season, according to MySynergySports.
Defensively, he stays on the balls of his feet well, but he’s not always moving somewhere helpful. The Knicks allow 110.3 points per 100 possessions with Hardaway on the court, up from 103.4 when he sits.
Hardaway’s value lies almost completely as a spot-up shooter.
But Hardaway isn’t necessarily destined to fill only such a limited role.
He’s 6-foot-6 and athletic, a combination that considerably boosts his upside.
“I want him to be a complete player,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “So, I want him to get better defensively, and I think he will as the years come and go. He’s just got to pick up a little of weight, get a little bit stronger. But I like everything about Tim.”
If you look closely, signs are already emerging he’ll realize his greater potential.
Hardaway finishes well at the rim when he gets there. Though he ranks just 59th league-wide in fastbreak points per game, he leads the slow-paced Knicks. In his last two games, he’s scored 22 points on 11 shots and 28 points on 13 shots.
As long as everyone keeps reasonable expectations for him, Hardaway should play prominently in the Knicks’ future.
The bulk of Hardaway’s value stems from how firmly he’s entrenched himself as a solid role player who could develop into a great role player. Whether or not they re-sign Carmelo Anthony this summer, the Knicks aren’t going to stop chasing stars, and stars can always use shooters like Hardaway to pace the floor. Hardaway’s defense still prevents him from being a true 3-and-D player, but that’s hardly uncommon for a rookie. Hardaway can, and likely, will get there.
But the chance he reaches a much higher ceiling, even if it’s a longshot, increases his value. Not all role players possess this type of upside.
After years of devoting extreme attention to what his become his signature skill, 3-point shooting, Hardaway has begun to develop his all-around repertoire.
“You’ve got to,” Hardaway said. “You’ve got to expand your game each and every day, and it doesn’t stop.”