NEW YORK (AP) — Tim Hardaway Jr. thought that with Phil Jackson gone, maybe there was a chance someday he could come back to New York.
Even he was surprised it was this soon.
With Jackson and his triangle offense gone, the Knicks reached back to their past to sign Hardaway, a former first-round pick who didn’t fit under Jackson but they hope can flourish without him.
“I definitely left with a bad taste in my mouth and just to have that opportunity to come back here is very rare, so you’ve got to make the most of that,” Hardaway said Monday.
Jackson and the Knicks parted ways last month after three dismal seasons and were quiet at the start of free agency until signing Hardaway to an offer sheet for a four-year, $71 contract. When the Atlanta Hawks decided not to match the offer for the restricted free agent, Hardaway was officially a Knick again on Saturday.
“You play here for two years and then you’re gone and then two years after you get a phone call and it’s like, `Wow, I wouldn’t expect it coming from them,”‘ Hardaway said.
The 6-foot-6 guard was the No. 24 pick in the 2013 draft after helping Michigan reach the NCAA championship game and was voted to the All-Rookie first team. Jackson was hired as team president late in that season, fired coach Mike Woodson and hired Derek Fisher to replace him and implement the triangle.
Hardaway shot just 39 percent in 2014-15 as the Knicks stumbled to a franchise-worst 17-65 finish, and Jackson dealt Hardaway to Atlanta in a three-team deal on draft night for the rights to first-round pick Jerian Grant.
“It was a tough season for everybody on that team and they had to make changes. At the end of the day it’s a business and the goal is to make your team better,” Hardaway said. “They had a decision to make, they made it and I rolled with it, and I was grateful that a team like Atlanta really wanted me to be a part of their franchise.”
It was rocky at first in Atlanta, where Hardaway was sent to the NBA Development League during his first season. But he averaged a career-best 14.5 points last season and the Knicks noticed, making an offer that not only was too much for the Hawks to match but seemed too high for a player who has never started more than 30 games.
“I really don’t know what to say about it. All I know is I’m going to come in here and work my tail off,” Hardaway said. “I’m going to give the fans what they want to see and I’m a mature player now. Everything is in full effect right now. I’m taking everything very serious.”
His role on the Knicks is unknown, as neither general manager Steve Mills nor coach Jeff Hornacek attended Hardaway’s reintroduction to the local media. Also unclear is how the roster around him will look as the Knicks seek a deal for Carmelo Anthony, whose locker was next to Hardaway’s in New York.
“I mean it’s an odd feeling, but Melo’s got to do what’s best for his family and for him,” Hardaway said. “Yes, we definitely want him back, no question, and just having that veteran leader out there on the floor, a go-to guy that can get you a bucket at any given moment of the game, it’s great. It’s great to have that, you want to have that, and it’ll be tough for him to leave, but like I said, he has to do what’s best for him and his family.”
There may be no Anthony, but there certainly won’t be Jackson or the triangle, and that should mean a better Hardaway than the one who left.
“I think I can really excel in this type of offense, rather than when I was in my second year in the league,” he said. “But that was learning a new offense, learning a new system and that staff, they didn’t draft me, so it was different. I can see this being more like my rookie type of season but being more mature, being able to take bigger strides and bigger steps on both ends of the floor.”