The 2013-14 season hasn’t gone as planned for the New York Knicks after tinkering with a roster in the offseason that won 54 games last year and now find themselves counting on luck to scratch into the playoffs.
Whether or not they catch the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed in the season’s final weeks, the Knicks can still carry two positives over to next season -- the addition of Phil Jackson to the front office and the play of Tim Hardaway, Jr.
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding New York’s short-term future, namely Carmelo Anthony and all their expensive contracts, but Hardaway provides a glimmer of hope. The 24th overall pick last June, Hardaway would likely be a top-10 pick if the class was re-drafted.
Regardless of where he was selected, Hardaway entered the NBA with an advantage over most rookies. The son of five-time All-Star Tim Hardaway, he has been rubbing elbows with professional athletes since birth.
“It makes it a lot easier, just having him and having been around the locker room before and after games,” Hardaway told RealGM this month. “I went to every game when I had an opportunity to, it was great and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I feel like I’m luckier than other rookies in that respect.”
The relationship between the father and son is an infamous one. Hardaway had nothing but positive and loving things to say about his father, but many believe he was passed over by college programs because of Tim Sr.’s presence. The older Hardaway has since admitted that he was probably too hard on his only son.
“The physicality is way more different. These guys are strong, grown men, not dudes that just come out of high school,” Hardaway said of the difference between now and his father’s playing days.
“You’ve got to go out there and play ball, you can’t be lazy or slow out there -- you can’t show it. You have to go out there and have fun, play smart and know your angles.”
As a high school freshman, Hardaway was briefly a two-sport athlete. He joined the football team in order to stay in shape and add muscle to his athletic frame.
“My freshmen year I played both,” he said. “Me and a couple of the guys on the basketball team went out and played football, more so for the lifting and to keep stay in shape and have an activity to do outside of basketball.”
He transferred to Miami Palmetto High School before his sophomore year and focused solely on basketball, foregoing football because “my Dad didn’t want me to do it anymore.” Still, his brief flirtation with football left him feeling stronger, quicker and even more athletic.
Michigan contacted Hardaway during his sophomore season and courted him for the better part of two years. He had a successful freshman campaign that ended with him receiving an invite to participate in the tryouts for the 2011 FIBA Under-19 World Championships with USA Basketball. He was selected to the team and averaged 9.4 points and 2.1 rebounds per game on 43.3 percent shooting in nine games.
Two years later Hardaway was one of many players with NBA-level talent on a Wolverines squad that lost to Louisville in the National Championship Game. He had 12 points, five rebounds and four assists in his final game as an amateur.
“We had so much talent,” Hardaway said of the 2013 Michigan squad that also featured Trey Burke, who was drafted ninth overall by the Utah Jazz.
Landing with the Knicks seemed like an ideal situation for Hardaway, who would earn significant time on a team that had holes on the wing and playoff aspirations.
“I think it’s going pretty good,” said Hardaway when asked about his rookie season. “The season hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to go, but at the same time we’re still competing and we’re still out there having a good time. We’re trying to finish strong.”
Hardaway has played in all but one of New York’s games this season and his role as a sparkplug off the bench has remained constant. In 69 games, he is averaging 10.0 points and 1.6 rebounds in 23 minutes.
“Nothing as changed,” he said when asked about his place in the rotation. “I’m still the guy to bring energy, the guy who will come off the bench and do whatever the team needs me to do. I try to get the ball, make plays and go out there and make shots. Whatever the coaches want to see from me.”
He is shooting 50.2 percent from two-point range and 36.3 percent from three, which ranks third among all qualified rookies. The two players ahead of him, Ryan Kelly and C.J. McCollum, have taken 178 combined threes to Hardaway’s 303 attempts.
Hardaway’s familiarity with the NBA helped him adjust quickly to the next level, but not everything has come easily to the rookie. For example, defending LeBron James is an otherworldly task.
“I had only seen LeBron when he was off the court,” he admitted. “Once he puts those shoes on and steps onto the court, he’s a whole different animal. When you see that freight train coming down the lane, all you can do is foul.”