The Progression of Tim Hardaway Jr.

Graham Chapple —  March 18, 2016

Last night was the completion of a full circle for Tim Hardaway Jr. as an Atlanta Hawk. With Kent Bazemore forced to sit out with a knee injury against the Denver Nuggets last night, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer called upon Tim Hardaway Jr. to fill in for the injured Bazemore — Hardaway’s first game as a starter for the Atlanta Hawks.

It’s been a long journey for Hardaway to reach this point – an arduous and challenging journey. To understand just how far he has come, we must backtrack.

Hardaway was acquired by the Hawks on draft night 2015 in a deal that sent to Kelly Oubre (No.15 pick) to Washington, and Jerian Grant (No.19 pick) to New York.

The dominos were, seemingly, lined up so that Hardaway would be put in a position to contribute right away.

DeMarre Carroll left for Toronto in free agency, while Atlanta’s other wing players – Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha – both sustained season ending injuries and would not be pushed too hard at the beginning of the season (both would sit out at least one game of a back-to-back sled).

This, added to the fact that the Hawks gave up a very decent pick at 15 – a pick they could’ve easily addressed their rebounding issues with Bobby Portis, perimeter shooting in Sam Dekker, or perimeter defending in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – to acquire Hardaway, so you would imagine the Hawks would have plans to play him right out of the gates.

All the signs pointed toward such an eventuality – but Coach Bud had other plans…

Hardaway found himself completely out of the Hawks’ rotation once the regular season began, having featuring in the Hawks’ pre-season campaign. He found himself on the bench, and could only watch on as the ‘end of the bench’ wings in Justin Holiday and 15th man Lamar Patterson continued to see consistent rotation minutes.

In fact, it took until game number 16 of the season – November 24th vs. the Boston Celtics – for Hardaway to make his long awaited regular season debut with the Hawks. He would play a few games in a row, only for Bud to yank him from the regular rotation until January.

Why was this the case? Everything pointed to Hardaway playing a lot of minutes – what happened? Well, there were multiple factors as to why he barely played to begin the season.

Hardaway had been dealing with a wrist injury in his time in New York and it carried into the summer. As a result, Hardaway fell behind in his offseason shooting development and conditioning, and he arrived into the season out of shape.

Hardaway was also joining Atlanta from the absolute train wreck that were the 2014-15 New York Knicks – the 16-66 New York Knicks, who had endured a terrible beginning to the Triangle ‘Era’ under Derek Fisher. In a terribly coached team, Hardaway became a bit of a chucker, something that has zero place in an offensive system like the Atlanta Hawks. The offensive system that the Hawks run is completely different to the Knicks’ “Triangle” (or the “Square” as Kobe Bryant called it this season) and Hardaway, as such, needed time to adjust and learn the offense. He would not be rushed.

Lamar Patterson and Justin Holiday are more experienced players than Hardaway, and have played basketball longer than Hardaway has — Holiday has played professional basketball since 2011 — and college ball since 2007 — while Lamar Patterson has played college ball or higher since 2009. As such, Bud leant toward the more experienced duo of Patterson and Holiday ahead of Hardaway. Lamar Patterson has also spent time with the Hawks during summer league, where the Hawks’ offense is run – so he is much more familiar to the offense than Hardaway would’ve been.

Patterson and Holiday were also more defensive wings than Hardaway, and Bud preaches defense above offense. Hardaway had serious catching up to do in that department – another reason why he was shut out of the rotation early on.

These were the reasons as to why Hardaway did not see any playing time for the first 16 games. His work was cut out for him.

Not only did Hardaway rarely feature for the Hawks, but he was also sent on multiple D-League excursions, both with the Canton Charge and the Austin Spurs – the Spurs run a similar offense to the Hawks, as Coach Bud is a disciple of Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.

At this stage it would’ve been completely acceptable for Hardaway to be upset and angry with life in Atlanta. Put yourself in his shoes: A first round pick who has played two seasons in the NBA – averaging double digit scoring numbers – now being sent to the D-League?? What is this, man?

But he understood that the Hawks had traded for him for a reason:

“They brought me here for a reason. They know what I can do. I’m here for a reason.’’  — Tim Hardaway Jr.

While on D-League duty, Hardaway soon found himself becoming more aware of the plays that were being run:

“I’ll be on the bench calling out their plays before they even call it out.’’ — Tim Hardaway Jr.

He was beginning to figure it out…

Meanwhile, Mike Budenholzer praised Hardaway’s professionalism throughout the process, and remained confident that he was on the right path:

“He’s been very good, very impressed, very pleased with his work behind the scenes that nobody sees, working on in the weight room, conditioning, shooting, everything. …I can promise you he’s doing well and in a good place. His approach to it has been very professional. There’s a real emphasis here on player development. We’ve seen guys come in, not start out as gangbusters. Through work and effort, they find a way. I would say he’s following that path.’’ — Coach Mike Budenholzer

And professional he was. When Hardaway wasn’t on D-League duty and was on the Hawks bench in a suit, he was always engaged, always enthusiastic when his teammates made great plays, and formed a great bench celebration mob with Dennis Schröder. It’s the one thing that stood out to me the most through this process.

However, the tide began to turn, as the darkness of Hardaway’s season began to shift into daylight — January 5th, when the Hawks faced Hardaway’s former team. Starting from that game, Hardaway’s minutes (and performances) have fluctuated, but he has played every game for the Hawks since that day.

In an article with USA Today, Hardaway described the process as a “learning experience”:

“All caps on ‘learning experience.’ ” — Tim Hardaway Jr. 

In the same article, Coach Bud said the idea was to create a two-way player, and that he is happy with how THJ responded to the challenge:

“We’re happy with the way Tim has responded. He had an injury that was a little bit understated. The ultimate goal in our league is to be a two-way player. I think he has the athleticism where he can be a good two-way guy. He’s on his way.”  Coach Mike Budenholzer

Hardaway wouldn’t have played if Coach Bud didn’t believe he was ready and, as time marched on, Bud started to trust him more and more – from an increase in minutes to playing important minutes in some fourth quarters.

And last night, Bud entrusted him – ahead of Thabo Sefolosha no less – to slot into the starting lineup in the absence of Kent Bazemore. Hardaway did not disappoint – pouring out a game and personal season high of 21 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. If you watched the game, you can see how far he has come since he joined.

Hardaway has come full circle in his journey from the inactive list, to the starting five.

We’re going to examine the film from last night and identify just how far THJ has come in a number of different areas.

Shot selection

In New York, Hardaway garnished a reputation for being, somewhat, of a chucker. In his earlier Hawks days, when he was still figuring things out, he would take a shot that you would know — straight away — was not “Atlanta-like”. But it has been a learning process, and Hardaway has learned when to pick his spots and when to give it to a teammate in a better position.

Here, he could’ve easily taken a shot at the elbow, but elects to pass it to Paul Millsap, who is rolling into space. As Millsap backs down Arthur, he draws the attention of Mudiay, and THJ is left with a more open shot than Paul. Millsap returns the ball to THJ, and he knocks down the three-pointer.

In this case, the ball ended up returning to Hardaway anyway but it only did so because he made the choice to not chuck a shot when there was a good opportunity to put up a shot. Instead, he gave the ball to Millsap, who sets him up for a better shot than the one THJ had turned down.

In this play from the third quarter, an Al Horford block creates a fast break opportunity. Horford outlets the ball to Hardaway, and he’s off to the races. You can see that Hardaway has a prime opportunity to rise up and attempt a shot, as the defense scrambles in transition. But he has the presence of mind to turn that shot down, and instead find the trailing Jeff Teague, who is wide open.

Unfortunately, this particular shot doesn’t go down — but it was the right thing to do, the Atlanta Hawks thing to do.

Hardaway is only going to improve in this area of his game — that reputation of a chucker will soon (if it hasn’t already) disappear.

Ball movement

This is something the Atlanta Hawks are well known for ever since Mike Budenholzer became head coach. The Hawks average 25.5 assists per game, and 66% of their made field goals are assisted, so it goes without saying that if you want to flourish for the Hawks, then you have to be able to move the ball.

THJ used to be guilty of taking a shot when he should’ve passed the ball, or guilty not being in the right place in the offense when it came to receiving the ball. Nowadays, however, he looks like any other member of the Hawks out there when it comes to moving the ball.

Here, Hardaway could’ve easily stepped into a long two pointer, but makes the extra pass to find Paul Millsap who knocks down the three-pointer.

The right play to make isn’t always the easiest to make.

Off of the Lauvergne miss, Hardaway leads the fast break. Last night, he was having success attacking the rim and drawing fouls — he could’ve easily tried to take it to the rim again, but instead whips the ball to streaking (no not in that way) Kyle Korver. His path, however, is cut off and the Nuggets’ defense is able to prevent the fast break. Korver returns the ball to THJ, who executes a pick and roll with Horford — delivering Horford the pass as he rolls.

In this instance the ball is deflected out of bounds, but the big takeaway from this play is that Hardaway is making the right passes and decisions within the Hawks’ offense.

Again, the right play isn’t always the easiest to make.

Off-ball movement

In the Hawks’ offense, you have to be able to be effective off-ball — which means be active, be on the move — that, in turn, will open up more scoring opportunities.

Hardaway has picked up on a play that his bigs often execute and it’s interesting that he uses it here. After he picks up his dribble after his driving lane is cut off, he hands the ball off to Mike Scott. He then runs a similar pick-and-pop action that his bigs use often to free themselves for a three-point shot. Scott, Millsap, and Horford all run this play with the guards and it creates three-point opportunities.

While Mike Scott didn’t return the ball to Hardaway in this instance, he was in a position to attempt a three-point shot if he had received the return pass from Scott. It wouldn’t have been the best three-point attempt in the world, but this wouldn’t have been an action you would’ve seen from Hardaway a few months ago.

This is a much better example of moving without the ball to create a better scoring opportunity. Hardaway makes the cut toward the basket (executing some nice curl action), and Kyle Korver finds him with a lovely overhead pass, and he finishes with a dunk.

This is exactly what the Bud wants from their players — creating easy scoring opportunities with their off-ball movement. Hardaway used to be very guilty of standing around a lot — usually behind the three-point line — waiting for something. Now, he is much more mobile on the offensive end and making something happen.

It’s clear to see that Hardaway now fits in on the court. If you watch Kris Humphries and Hardaway in the Hawks’ offense, you will see a huge difference in fit. Humphries, having just joined the team recently, is still figuring things out — taking shots in areas where he should pass to a more open teammate — while Hardaway has figured it out and knows when to pass the rock.

The following clip is my favourite Hardaway clip from last night. A monster Paul Millsap block starts the fast break opportunity. Horford gets the ball to Korver behind the three-point line, who then whips it to Hardaway in the corner. Hardaway then returns it to Korver and darts toward the rim. Korver finds the cutting Hardaway, and he finishes the play.

That is beautiful basketball. That is EXACTLY the kind of pass (the one Hardaway returned to Korver) you would see the Hawks do so often last season. That’s Atlanta Hawks basketball. Hardaway could’ve shot that three, but instead he returns it to Korver, and uses his movement to create a better scoring opportunity. If there was ever a play to show that Tim Hardaway is officially an Atlanta Hawks that would be it.

Defense

This was one of the biggest knocks against Hardaway, but he has improved significantly.

Here, he makes life tough for Gary Harris — one of Denver’s best scorers in Gallinari’s absence last night. Harris is forced to give the ball up, and Jeff Teague almost comes up with the steal.

THJ used to be a joke on defense, but he is becoming the two-way player that Coach Bud believes he can be one day.

On this next play, Hardaway drifts a little too far away Harris, but makes an excellent recovery to contest Harris’ shot, and the shot is off target.

Good contest by Hardaway. He’s no Tony Allen — and still makes some defensive mistakes — but he’s a far better defender than he used to be. You can see the progress he is making on that end of the floor.

Confidence

Hardaway really struggled with confidence last season with the 16-66 Knicks. I remember watching one game when Hardaway went to the bench, and he just looked miserable. This prompted his mentor, Carmelo Anthony, to speak with him in order to build him up.

When you’re in a losing environment — especially in New York where expectations are so high — it affects your confidence. And when you’re a sharpshooter like Hardaway, you need to be confident the entire time — the mental aspect is hugely important in any shooter’s success.

Earlier this season in Atlanta, you could see that Hardaway wasn’t confident with his shot. But the more he has played, the more Hardaway has found his shot returning to him. Since the All-Star break, he has shot 36% from behind the arc.

Last night you could tell he had a bounce to his step — that his confidence was high. Look at the little extra bounce in his step after he makes this shot:

He knew this was good. Confidence, baby, confidence.

The praise was heaped on Hardaway after his fantastic debut as an Atlanta Hawks starter:

“People see the points, 21, but I think seven rebounds and four assists is a complete game. I thought defensively he was active. One of the steals he had in the third quarter was a big one. The game was in an interesting spot. He’s competing. He’s competing on both ends of the court. He’s making things happen. I think it was a complete-type player, a complete-type game.” — Coach Mike Budenholzer

“He was great. He stepped up to the call. Obviously with (Kent) Bazemore being out, his energy. I know he scored a lot of points but defensively was the key. If he can play defense at that level it just makes us a much better team.”
I’m just happy to see him. He’s come a long way since the beginning of the year. Him being able to get more minutes and make the most of them, it’s good to see.” — Al Horford

“I like guys who can shoot the ball and like to run the floor. He does that really well. He gets out and runs and tries to gets easy baskets. He’s a confident shooter and he makes my job a lot easier.” — Jeff Teague

Tim Hardaway Jr. still has work to do, but he has come so far in a season no one could’ve anticipated for him when he arrived in Atlanta last summer. Carry on, Sir, carry on.

Graham Chapple

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