Breaking Down What's Behind NY Knicks' Guard Tim Hardaway Jr.'s Success

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Breaking Down What's Behind NY Knicks' Guard Tim Hardaway Jr.'s Success
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He might not know it yet, but rookie shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has been teaching a clinic on how to make it in the NBA

Within the first two months of the season, he had already established an identity for himself and cracked the New York Knicks rotation. 

But the role he's thriving in with the Knicks is far different from the one he played at Michigan, where he averaged 14.5 points a game his final year. 

He was a major contributor for a Wolverines team that made a run to the national title game. However, despite possessing NBA athleticism and size, along with a potent offensive game, Hardaway never really generated too much buzz as a can’t-miss prospect.

Hardaway heard 23 names called before his in the 2013 draft, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ben McLemore, two similar guards, yet ones who’ve struggled mightily as rookies.

In his final year at Michigan, Hardaway Jr. battled with inconsistency—he was a guy who’d score 23 points in a win over Ohio State, and then follow with a 1-of-11 showing at Michigan State. 

Credit that to a role he wasn’t qualified to play as Michigan’s primary scoring option outside of point guard Trey Burke. 

 

Hardaway's core offensive weakness centers around his inability to create off the dribble. One-on-one just isn't his forte—his handle in traffic is suspect, which keeps him from blowing by defenders and getting to the rim in the half court. He only averaged 2.9 free-throw attempts a game in 2012-13, an awfully low number for a 6'6'' athletic scorer.

Hardaway ultimately took a lot of tough shots over the course of his career at Michigan, primarily because he struggled creating easy ones for himself. And it resulted in a lot of ups and downs.

But as a member of the Knicks, Hardaway's responsibilities have been sliced in half. Playing alongside scorers, playmakers and passers like like Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni, Hardaway has been able to narrow his offensive focus thanks to a much lighter load on his shoulders. And in turn, it's made him a more efficient and productive offensive player.

Going from Michigan to New York, he's seen his minutes reduced from 33.8 to 20.1 per game, and his usage rate reduced from 23.7 percent to 17.7. And with his role tightened up, the results have been much cleaner.

Usage Rate versus Efficiency, Production
Usage Rate Minutes per game FG percentage 3PT percentage Points per 40 minutes
2013-14 17.7 20.1 .471 .417 18.5
2012-13 23.2 34.8 .437 .374 16.7

Basketball-reference.com, ESPN

Despite fewer touches, he's scoring at a better rate per 40 minutes, while his field-goal and three-point percentages are both up. 

And though Hardaway deserves the credit for making the most of his opportunity, the Knicks coaching staff deserves some praise for putting him a role that plays directly to his strengths. 

 

Play to Your Strengths

Play to your strengths—it's the No. 1 lesson to learn from Hardaway's early success. Hardaway has excelled doing exactly what he does well, without looking to try things he's not comfortable doing. 

His two core strengths center around his sharp shooting stroke and high-flying athleticism. And as a Knick so far, they've pretty much been the only source for his offensive production. 

Hardaway has picked up the majority of his buckets on the perimeter and in transition. 

In the half court, he's been a lethal outside shooter simply by catching and releasing, not by pulling up or stepping back for fadeaways off the dribble. You rarely see Hardaway dance with the ball before rising to fire, the way J.R. Smith does on the bulk of his scoring chances. 

You generally know when Hardaway is going to miss or turn the ball over—it's the instant he takes that second or third dribble in the half court. Once he puts it on the floor, he's already fallen out of his comfort zone.

Hardaway has been money in a spot-up role in New York's offense, where all he has to worry about is catching and shooting. 


MSG

Of the 50 field goals Hardaway Jr. has made in the 20-24-foot range, 90 percent of them came off an assist. Of the 25 he hit in the 25-29-foot range, 88 percent of them were assisted. 

He's only two of nine on the year on pull-up jumpers, zero of four on driving jumpers and one of one on step-back jumpers.

Hardaway has done a good job of avoiding these type of shots (by sticking to his strengths) and letting the big dogs like 'Melo and Smith go to town with them.

Catch-and-shoot basketball is clearly Hardaway's bread and butter, and it's allowed him to stay productive in a shooting-specialist role. He has textbook form on his jumper, as he gets excellent elevation and a high release that's tough to contest. 

Hardaway has also been a machine for the Knicks on the break. He's electric in the open floor, where he gives the Knicks an easy-bucket target above the rim. 

Hardaway is living proof that all you need are the physical tools and a consistently threatening jumper to make it in this league as a 2-guard. 

However, despite the hot start, don't count on him emerging as the Knicks' next go-to option. Hardaway is at his best when he's asked to do less. 

The bigger his role, the more vulnerable his shot selection and efficiency become. 

He's been a lone bright spot for the Knicks in what's been a disaster of a season. It might even be fair to say that Hardaway, whom Yahoo! Sports' Dan Pearson recently argued for Rookie of the Year, has been the team's most reliable night-to-night player.

“Tim isn’t your ordinary rookie. He’s a bit ahead of the game,” coach Mike Woodson told Tony Williams of Metro US“Once he gets stronger he’ll be even better on defense.”

Hardaway may not possess the upside of some of the top 10 picks in last year's draft. But he's found something that can be a little more important than a high ceiling, and that's an NBA niche. 

Whether or not Hardaway ever evolves into a more multidimensional offensive player, he'll always have a home as a shooter and open-floor weapon. And as long as he embraces his role as a complementary scorer, he's going to give the Knicks some serious value on a rookie deal. 

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