Tim Hardaway Jr. wasn't expected to play a major role when he was drafted by the New York Knicks in June, but after a strong preseason, he could end up cracking the rotation right away.
With Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Beno Udrih, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith on the roster, the Knicks have one of the deeper guard rotations in the NBA. There's no All-Star at the position, but these are all guys who have a legitimate case for playing 20 minutes a night.
Based on his early performances, Hardaway, too, might be worthy of significant playing time. His jump shot has proved to be a legitimate weapon, his defense is solid (though nothing special), and he doesn't seem daunted by the prospect of taking on elite opposition.
In the absence of Smith—who's currently suspended until the November 9 matchup with the San Antonio Spurs —Hardaway has played in all three regular-season games with mixed results. He's shooting only 33 percent from the floor, and that kind of production isn't going to keep him in the rotation when everyone's healthy.
Although he regularly reached the double-digit scoring mark in the preseason, he shot only 36 percent from the floor, so consistency is clearly a problem as he adjusts to the NBA.
To earn a long-term role in the rotation, he doesn't have much time to pick things up. He has to make good use of the home-and-home against the Charlotte Bobcats, because once Smith returns, it might be awhile before Hardaway gets another opportunity to show us what he's got.
Knowing how much coach Mike Woodson values Smith and Shumpert as well as the dual-point guard offense, the likelihood is that Hardaway will end up being used in a reserve role. As talented as he is, he can't yet match Smith's offense or Shumpert's defense and is also short on experience so early in his career.
Still, if Smith struggles to adjust after playing only one preseason game, having a reserve guard like Hardaway cold prove to be useful. If nothing else, he can spread the floor and hold his own on defense, making him at least a replacement-level guard at this point.
There's also the issue of Smith's consistency. We all know he has a penchant for hot and cold streaks, and when the latter inevitably happens, Hardaway would make a worthy alternative. He may not be better than Smith overall, but he's better than the Smith we saw shoot 29 percent from the floor against the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs.
What's more interesting to think about, however, is Hardaway's long-term role in New York. Going into the draft, the Knicks already had Shumpert under contract and likely could have expected the same with Smith (who wasn't signed at the time but did say he wanted to retire as a Knick), so picking up another young 2-guard was a curious move.
Perhaps the Knicks wanted to add depth, but given that they have so few draft picks within this three-year radius, it was more likely that they would select a player who might play a big role in the future.
At the moment, it's fine not to give Hardaway minutes, because he's an unproven rookie, but in a year or two, the Knicks will struggle to find space for all three players. It wouldn't be too surprising to see one of these guys traded before that time comes.
Again, because the team just used its first-round pick on him, the likelihood that New York would trade Hardaway is low. At this point in their respective careers, Shumpert and Smith are likely to bring better packages, so they seem like the more likely candidates to be traded.
Most would agree that Shumpert—because of his defense and upside—is the keeper between the two, but owner James Dolan isn't known for making logical moves. We've heard multiple times already that Shumpert has been on the trading block, so in terms of likelihood, that may end up being the move.
For the moment, the Knicks are just focused on winning a title. If Hardaway proves himself—which is a relatively big if at this point—they'll cross this bridge when they come to it. They can rest easy for now in knowing that, even if Hardaway isn't a legitimate nightly rotation option yet, they finally have the depth at shooting guard to get by on Smith's cold nights.