At the start of this season, many called Hardaway's contract overpaid. Now, it's starting to look like he's worth it.
It was hard not to balk at the idea of Tim Hardaway Jr. being paid $71 million going into the 2017 season. For most basketball fans, it was another suspect offer enabled by the cap spike in the Mozgov/Noah/Deng ballpark, and for Knicks fans especially it opened up old wounds left by Jerome James and Eddy Curry. We had cap space for a hot second and a large chunk of it immediately goes to a one-dimensional scorer who had a decent season with the Hawks, great.
The first four games of the season Hardaway didn't exactly wow either; whether it was due to him adjusting to a Knicks system different to how he usually got his shots in Atlanta, or just an old-fashioned shooting slump, Hardaway struggled at the one thing he was supposed to be good at, scoring just under 10 points per game while averaging more than 12 attempts.
Then, The Cleveland game happened.
On the road against the Cavaliers, Hardaway broke out of his cold streak in a well-rounded fury, scoring 34 points on 11/19 shooting along with 8 assists (still a season high). The Cleveland Game was significant for two reasons: for one, it was just incredible to watch a player snap a shooting slump against Lebron and Co., but it was also the first inkling that Hardaway could be more than the me-first scorer type we thought we were getting from Atlanta. Since then he has continued his development as a complete player, improving his abilities that better the team as a whole rather than showcase his individual offensive talents.
Hardaway is currently tied for second with Frank Ntilikina in assists per game (3.5) for the Knicks and is a highly capable secondary playmaker when playing with Jarret Jack. While Jack (who currently leads the Knicks in assists) is a more confident and capable floor general in half-court scenarios, Hardaway has the requisite youth and athleticism on hand to do things like zipping fast-break passes to a rolling Enes Kanter:
The pass in transition leading to an easy bucket is great when it happens, but it's also worth noting how much Hardaway has been moving the rock in general. This season, he's making 35.9 passes per game: a career high, and 10 more than when he was playing last season with the Atlanta Hawks. It's little things like this where you see how Hardaway fits with the team moving forward, as his commitment to a more team-based style of play reflects the same commitment by the Knicks as a whole following Carmelo Anthony's departure.
While we're on the topic of Anthony, a big reason why he hasn't been missed much in New York (apart from more ball movement, better team defense, actually working towards a culture, I could go on) is because of Hardaway picking up the points he left behind. Even with the improvements to his overall game, Hardaway is still a dynamite scorer, and his 18 points per game (up from 14 with Atlanta) is good for second on the team behind Porzingis. He'll still have at least one, maybe two bone-headed shot attempts per game, which are hard to justify but even harder to criticise when they go in.
Also, he has his daddy's crossover, which makes me cackle out loud whenever he busts it out.
It's not out of the realm of possibility for an All-Star selection to be in Timmy's future if he keeps improving his game like this. Of all the guards playing right now, it's a pretty short list of players who can match or better Hardaway's output, and nearly all of them have All-Star nods on their resume. With that being said, Hardaway's blossoming doesn't automatically make his contract good. People were too quick to praise Phil Jackson for drafting Porzingis despite evidence suggesting he wanted Okafor instead, and likewise, I feel like just because Hardaway has shown improved court vision and rebounding efforts this season the same crowd are ready to call that $71 million contract a savvy deal. I'm definitely not ready to start equating the Knicks front office with the Spurs just yet.
I AM definitely ready to say though, that this is not the same Tim Hardaway Jr who initially played for New York some years ago. It figures, with the Knicks shoddy history of player development, that a talented player had to go somewhere else to learn how to play before coming back to Madison Square Garden and tearing it up. At least New York now has him locked up for what should be the prime of his career. If this season is anything to go by, Hardaway should continue to evolve and help the Knicks get better.