Selected by the New York Knicks with the 24th overall pick, the 6’6” former Michigan Wolverine stood sturdy as a symbol of youthful poise last season, flashing promise and consistently proving his worth on a floundering team that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way. He led the Knicks in games played, missing only one contest all season.
Hardaway Jr. exceeded expectations and shined while everything around him was dark, and by the end of his first taste of NBA life, he was named to the 2013-14 All-Rookie First Team. He averaged 10.2 points per game, shot 36.3 percent from deep and boasted the second-best turnover percentage in the entire league among players who play significant minutes (a microscopic 5.9 percent).
There will be growth in his sophomore season because that's what good, young NBA players do; here’s what it may look like.
Hardaway’s duty as a rookie was to shoot, shoot and shoot some more, but unlike some of his more famous scoring teammates, the bulk of his production came within the flow of New York’s offense. He showed tremendous ability moving away from the ball, getting open and eluding the defense, finding holes like a slot receiver over the middle.
This skill will help him this season. Whether it’s tightly curling off a screen or flaring into the corner, Hardaway Jr. is a slippery eel who New York’s coaching staff can confidently run half-court plays when they go outside the triangle offense.
There's no hesitation once Hardaway Jr. catches a pass. He either takes one or two dribbles to get open or simply rises up from where he stands, snaps his wrist and watches the ball sail toward the rim.
With Carmelo Anthony still holding strong as the focal point of New York’s offense for the foreseeable future, Hardaway Jr. will only have so many opportunities to grow with the ball in his hands. But the Knicks would be wise to make him a secondary ball-handler with Carmelo in the game and a primary one when the superstar is resting.
Testing Hardaway Jr.’s playmaking skills, especially in the pick-and-roll, could reap humongous benefits, if not this season, then down the line.
Last year, in limited attempts—only 72 plays, per Synergy Sports (subscription required)—he was one of the league's 10 most efficient scorers as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. It was here he showed the confidence of a veteran, pulling the trigger on his dangerous jump shot the second a high screen gave him some breathing room—without thinking twice. There's good to that, and there's bad.
If he’s to develop into the type of player New York badly wants him to be, Hardaway Jr. will need to do more than unconsciously pull up for shots off the dribble or (especially) become a floor-stretching statue in the corner. He’ll need to read the defense and make the correct pass. He’ll need to hit the open man, analyze how he’s being guarded and react properly.
It's unknown how much more rope new Knicks head coach Derek Fisher will let Hardaway Jr. pull on, but this is the most exciting area where the young player can get better. What other dimensions of his game can stand to improve?
Like most rookies, Hardaway Jr. struggled on defense last season, but he is focused on making strides this year. Here’s ESPNNewYork.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk with what Hardaway Jr. expects from himself in the immediate future.
“I just want to be a better defender, a better vocal leader out there,” Hardaway Jr. said at Charity Day, hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC Partners last Thursday. “That is my main focus. I know offense will come and I will get better at that each and every day. Where you separate yourself in the league is by playing team defense and I want to be a part of that.”
Shooting and providing offensive punch certainly isn’t a problem for Hardaway Jr. … He should only get better as he continues to expand his offensive game and learn what defenses will give him.
Hardaway possesses all the physical tools necessary to be a solid, if not very good, on-ball perimeter defender. His combination of quick feet, long arms and fantastic reflexes made blowing past him difficult last season. In New York’s switch-happy system, Hardaway Jr. did a relatively good job handling quicker point guards, too.
Off the ball is a different issue, though, and Hardaway Jr.'s development in a new system may take some time.
The Knicks are neither young nor very good, and after missing the playoffs last season, their ability to improve this year rests in large part on the shoulders of talent that still has room to improve.
Hardaway Jr. is first on that list. But thanks to his secondary role on New York's roster, and the uncertainty surrounding his defense and whether he can ever become more than a shoot-first specialist, Hardaway Jr.'s ceiling remains limited.
He'll never make an All-Star team or average 20 points per game, and he may not even solidify himself as a starter for another couple seasons. But New York's 22-year-old has the potential to be a splendid cog in something successful, and will certainly be more polished this year than last.
Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.