This is part two of Ashwin Ramnath’s Free Agent Files series, in which he will continue to break down some of the more intriguing players on this summer’s market. This time he focuses on restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr.
When Atlanta traded their 2015 first round pick to the Knicks in order to acquire Tim Hardaway Jr. after he had flattered to deceive in his sophomore campaign following a promising rookie season, they were roundly mocked. In a difficult second season in New York, he was thrust into a higher usage role during a campaign which saw massive roster turnover. He predictably struggled offensively, and his defense varied between bad and Kanter depending on the night as the Knicks limped to a pathetic 17-65 record.
With his stock at a low, the Knicks cut bait with Hardaway Jr. and sent him on his way to Atlanta. Two years and a crash course at Hawks University later, he has developed into a solid 2-guard and become a cautionary tale for the risks teams take when giving up on a young player so early in their careers.
Hardaway Jr., who has developed into a fairly consistent scorer, capable secondary playmaker. and serviceable team defender, enters free agency primed to cash in two years after he was written off by most.
Take a look at his 2016-17 numbers (click each table to enlarge).
Hardaway Jr. is coming off the most efficient scoring season of his career. He utilized an improved handle to get to the bucket more frequently, with nearly 30% of all his field goal attempts coming at the rim while averaging a career high 3.6 drives per game.
Hardaway has always been an excellent finisher in transition, but he was never very comfortable or adept at pushing the ball up the floor himself. Here he receives a pass in the backcourt and looks to attack before the defense has a chance to get set. He gets Deron Williams on his heels and leaves him for dead with the crossover before gathering, and completes his coast-to-coast foray with a nice finish around Frye at the rim.
His improved ball handling allowed him to create more frequently for himself. He finished in the 78th percentile in isolation scoring, expanding his game from a mere spot-up threat capable of attacking closeouts to a more dynamic scorer.
Here he isolates from the top of the key on Trevor Ariza, one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. He uses a hang dribble to freeze Ariza for just a split second before driving past him and finishing with a nifty lefty scoop over Clint Capela’s outstretched arms.
Hardaway’s improved off the dribble game also allowed him to become more of a threat as a pick-and-roll ball handler.
He demonstrates great patience here in executing the pick-and-roll with Howard, using the screen to position Gordon behind him while maintaining a live dribble. This freezes Nene (he’s concerned with cutting off the pocket pass to Howard on the roll), and Hardaway Jr. uses his hesitation to get all the way to the cup for the finish and a trip to the free throw line.
Hardaway Jr’s improvements as ball handler has also made him more comfortable as a playmaker this season, as he posted the highest assist rate of his career. He wasn’t particularly flashy, but he’s capable of running simple pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs and hitting the roll man.
Here he runs a dribble handoff with Humphries at the top of the key. As J.R. Smith trails him around the screen, Hardaway Jr. recognizes Frye has pushed up to cut off his drive. He finds Humphries with a nifty pocket pass, setting up an easy deuce.
While the offensive growth has been promising, it’s on the defensive end where Hardaway Jr. has made the greatest strides since entering the league. His time in New York saw him rated as one of the worst perimeter defenders in the NBA. Despite possessing good length for a wing, his lack of awareness, effort and physical strength led to significant concern about his chances to improve.
He stopped being an absolutely awful defenderhttps://t.co/hlZwaGEFHC
— ShwinnyPoohNBA (@shwinnypoohNBA) June 7, 2017
Here he sees Thomas and Horford running a pick-and-roll at the top of the key and immediately leaves Bradley in the corner. Before Horford even catches the ball on the roll, Hardaway Jr. is in the lane cutting off his path to the rim. With Horford forced to dish it out to Bradley in the corner, Hardaway Jr. makes a second effort to get back out to contest the shot which rims out. Instead of taking a breath, he’s already off to the races in transition.
So a weird thing happened after Timmy got traded to ATLhttps://t.co/RF6FIAHXkj
— ShwinnyPoohNBA (@shwinnypoohNBA) June 7, 2017
Hardaway Jr. again shows great awareness. You can see him take a peek to locate Smith before leaving him in the corner, pinching down to help on Lebron deep in the paint. His rotation is quick enough to deflect the entry pass from Love and force a turnover, which ultimately results in a wide open 3 for him in transition.
He’s not a perfect defender by any imagination. He struggles in isolation, gets caught up fighting over screens and can be overpowered by bigger wings. However, his improved awareness and execution of team concepts have made him a solid cog for one of the league’s best defenses.
After putting together a career year on both ends of the floor, Hardaway Jr. is poised to enter free agency at the perfect time. At 25 years old his ceiling is likely capped as a solid starting 2 guard, but that has tremendous value, particularly with the demand for quality wings far exceeding the supply, this summer and in today’s NBA in general. Atlanta will certainly have strong interest in retaining a player that they’ve helped to develop into a starter and with the opportunity to match all offers, the deck is stacked in their favor.
However, as was the case last summer, the market for wings can be competitive and pricey. Given Hardaway Jr.’s continued growth as a player along with his current age and ability to produce sudden, game winning scoring explosions, he’s certain to be a prime option for team’s looking to improve their talent and depth on the wing. Two years after his long term future in the league was questioned, Hardaway Jr. has proven his doubters wrong and is set to have the last laugh, all the way to the bank.
Ashwin Ramnath is an NBA writer for Bballbreakdown, NYKinformation.com and is the founder of Knicksed and Bruised. He’s also a contributing writer at Low Post Gazette. You can follow him on twitter @shwinnypoohNBA.