When it was reported in July that the New York Knicks had signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million contract (with a player option!), I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. The NBA is always better when the Knicks are good, and this felt like a step in the wrong direction for several reasons:
I’m going to focus on those last two bullet points: how good is Hardaway Jr. and how will he fit? The 2016-17 season was really a tale of two seasons for THJ, with New Years Day marking a turning point:
Sometimes storylines and perceptions from the beginning of the season can overstay their welcome. So, when THJ inked that contract, I was remembering him as the player that I saw at the beginning of the season. Though a 48-game sample size shouldn't assuage all concerns, Knicks fans should be encouraged by the progress THJ made as the season wore on and his role increased.
Also worth pointing out: the Atlanta Hawks were 8.6 points per 100 possessions better with THJ on the court compared to when he sat. That difference in net rating was the best on the team among guys who played regular minutes last season. And, he was very efficient at what he was asked to do offensively. His primary role was as a catch-and-shoot guy. Just over one-third of his total shots were catch-and-shoot threes per NBA.com, on which he shot 36.7% (40.6% after New Years). Many of these catch-and-shoot attempts came as spot-ups (meaning he was stationary when he caught the ball vs. running off a screen). He scored 1.15 points per possession on spot-ups, good for the 86th percentile in the league. Watch as he shows his pump-and-go ability and strong decision-making on this play, eventually leading to an open spot-up three.
At first, I feared that THJ's value as a spot-up guy would be wasted on this Knicks roster. Last season, New York finished third-to-last in frequency of "wide open" threes per NBA.com, and without strong point guard play, they don't project to be much better this year. The Hawks, on the other hand, were top-10 in the league in that department. Atlanta point guard Dennis Schroeder, for all his faults, is miles better than any point guard on the Knicks in terms of his ability to penetrate, draw defenders and kick for open looks. But the more I looked through Hardaway Jr.'s video, the more impressed I was with the versatility of his jump shot coming off screens. Though he only ranked in the 52nd percentile shooting off screens, his highlights are encouraging. Watch his balance here coming to his right off this Dwight Howard screen:
The Knicks don't have a ton of strengths, but they are deep in the frontcourt and have plenty of solid screen-setters: Enes Kanter, Joakim Noah and Kyle O'Quinn to name a few. THJ has also shown the ability to rise up, running towards his left:
He's more than just a catch-and-shoot guy, too. Just over a quarter of his total shots came off pull-up jumpers, where he was league-average given his volume. He shot 33.3% on pull-up threes and ranked 36th in effective field goal percentage out of the 71 players who took at least 240 pull-up jump shots. He was spectacularly average on pull-ups, and given the Knicks' dearth of playmaking, he's going to be asked to do more creating his own offense this season.
Perhaps most encouraging about Hardaway Jr.'s game was his ability to finish in the restricted area, where he shot 64%. 47 guards took at least 200 shots in the restricted area last season; THJ ranked fourth in field goal percentage inside the semi-circle, behind only Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and James Harden (note: NBA.com mistakenly lists Giannis Antetokounmpo as a guard). One reason for this is THJ's prolific transition scoring. A whopping 21% of his shots came in transition, where he scored 1.17 points per possession, better than 65% of the league. He uses his speed, craftiness and footwork to score in transition:
He was even solid in isolation scoring, but only did so on less than five percent of his possessions. As is the running theme, he'll need to up the frequency of his isolation possessions out of necessity this year without a legitimate playmaker on the team. The bottom line is, I began writing this piece expecting to come away feeling only despair over Hardaway Jr.'s contract. But, after diving into his stats and watching the tape, there's definitely some upside to him. Whether he'll be able to flourish on this Knicks team may be another story, but Hardaway Jr. has the tools to prove a lot of people wrong. Maybe it will never be a great contract, but he may end up being a net positive in the long run.