After signing the most panned contract of the 2016 offseason, Tim Hardaway Jr. is starting to heat
In case you missed it, the New York Knicks are currently 9-7, and surprisingly competitive in a rebuilding year in which they seemed destined for the lottery. A high pick is still possible, thanks in large part to the Knicks’ home-heavy schedule thus far, as they boast an 8-3 record within the friendly confines of Madison Square Garden. They are led by newly-minted MVP candidate Kristaps Porzingis, and have received a nice boost from their motley crew of veterans and unproven youngsters, yet one controversial player has faded into the background: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Tim Hardaway Jr. feeding right into the big contract naysayers (virtually everyone) so far this season. #knicks— Jamal Murphy (@Blacketologist) October 25, 2017
When Knicks’ President Steve Mills signed Hardaway Jr. to a 4-year/$71 million contract, it was widely panned as one of the worst deals handed out in recent memory; another tragic misstep from a front office that offered a similar deal to the washed Joakim Noah one year earlier. In Hardaway, many saw him as an athletic scorer with some upside, who was just developed enough to be a capable starter, but certainly not worth that price tag. But after a dreadful first two weeks of the season, Hardaway Jr. has quietly been a great sidekick for Porzingis.
The Knicks started the season to the tune of a 1-3 record, and despite Porzingis’ solid individual play, New York appeared to be the bottom-three team that everyone predicted them to be. Through the first four games, Hardaway Jr. was barely making an impact, averaging a measly 9.8 points per game on an unacceptable 26.5% shooting from the field. Gaining some momentum in the Knicks’ first win against Brooklyn on October 27th, Hardaway Jr.’s triumphant return to the Knicks occurred against the Cavaliers in Cleveland two days later.
Against the defending Eastern Conference champs, Hardaway Jr. exploded for 34 points while shooting 57.9% from the field. In the 12 games since Brooklyn, Tim has been every part the $71 million man Steve Mills hoped him to be; he has shot over 44% from the field, averaged 19.7 points, and most surprisingly, has proven to be a reliable facilitator as well. He has averaged 3.6 assists since Oct. 27, which ranks just second behind Jarrett Jack’s 5.6 per game amongst Knicks averaging more than 20 minutes per contest.
Hardaway Jr. has shaken off his early struggles, and is on pace for career-highs in minutes (33.5), free throw attempts and makes (3.3 and 2.7, respectively), rebounds (4.4), assists (3.1), steals (1.3) and points (17.2). The Knicks paid him for his upside, and thus far he is thriving with a larger role under Hornacek’s run-and-gun offense, which ranks 11th in the league in offensive rating, and is trending upward since Jarrett Jack’s elevation to the starting PG role.
Beyond standard statistics, Hardaway Jr. is also one of the best players on the team using advanced stats that can bear witness to the more rounded player he is becoming.He leads the Knicks in Value Above Replacement Player (0.6), and trails just Porzingis and Enes Kanter in win shares (1.3). Considering how much is made of the Knicks’ frontcourt logjam, it is imperative that Hardaway Jr. be an impact player in the backcourt. However, it is important to remember that Hardaway Jr.is still an expensive project, not without some very apparent weaknesses.
Surprised by Tim Hardaway Jr’s big shot?— Kristian Winfield (@Krisplashed) November 16, 2017
Hardaway is shooting 50% from both the field and from 3 in the clutch. #Knicks
Evoking memories of Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and any other number of volume shooters that have dressed in the orange and blue of late, Hardaway Jr.’s Achilles’ heel is shot selection. By far, Tim is at his most dangerous when he is blowing by opponents off the dribble, as he has become the Knicks’ most apt penetrator by far; averaging 5.2 drives per game, he finishes at about a 45% clip, good for 3.6 points off drives per game. Excluding the rejuvenated Courtney Lee, Hardaway Jr. is really the only guard capable of effective penetration on the roster. However, Tim does not drive to the basket nearly as much as he should, given his ability to finish at the rim.
Tim Hardaway Jr the last 10 games:— Steve Cono (@SteveCono) November 16, 2017
21 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1 spg on 46% shooting… but only 33% from three. When he learns what a bad shot is, he’s got the skill to be a homerun. But will he ever?
Tim also averages 5.6 points per game off catch-and-shoot opportunities, which is when he is at his most effective shooting. Many times, he will hold the ball and look to force up an ill-advised 3-point shot. Considering his lateral quickness, Hardaway should bring the ball inside the arc more than he does: he shoots 30.9% from deep, which is the lowest amongst the Knicks’ regular 3-ballers while attempting the most (7.7, compared to Porzingis’ second most at 5.0).
While Tim’s playmaking ability is a work in progress, his defense is a project as well. He allows opponents to shoot 47.0% against him, compared to backcourt mate and defensive specialist Frank Ntilikina’s 39.0%. While New York’s interior defense is excellent (38.6 opponents’ points in the paint, the best in the NBA), their 3-point defense is below average (37.5%, tied for 21st in the league). The entire team has a problem with perimeter defense in a modern league where players 1 through 5 can shoot from deep, but when considering 3-point defense, the onus largely lies with the guards.
Tim Hardaway Jr.’s massive contract might have been fodder for jokes and hot takes over the summer, but that narrative has largely subsided amongst the Knicks’ early success and Tim’s strong play. Having overcome early struggles, perhaps under the mental pressure to live up to his contract, Hardaway Jr. has emerged as a solid second option for a Knicks squad looking to overachieve. His clutch shooting and knack for carrying New York during KP’s dry stretches has made Hardaway Jr. invaluable for the Knicks, and they hope that his lingering foot issues (potential plantar fasciitis) do not amount to anything serious. If Hardaway Jr. sits as Porzingis continues his recent ‘slump,’ the optimistic Knicks could come crashing back to reality soon.
Edited by Vincent Choy.
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