Tim Hardaway Jr's inaugural season with the Atlanta Hawks would be best be described as a mixed bag. Depending on who you were talking to, he was a part of the worst trade in NBA history or a burgeoning All-Star. Following Hardaway's season was truly a roller coaster ride. Before we dive in deep lets relive the ups and downs.
This story starts on draft night which was highly anticipated by Hawks fans due to the fact that Atlanta had the right to swap picks with the Brooklyn Nets. The Hawks finished the season as the No. 1 seed in the East but just missed out on having a lottery pick thanks to a late surge by the Nets that captured them the eighth seed.
Still Atlanta would pick 15th, which isn't bad for a team at the top of the standings and we were thoroughly prepared profiling plenty of players that could potentially be good fits in that spot. The Hawks selected Kelly Oubre and drew cheers from the fanbase but we quickly learned that Oubre was headed to Washington as the Hawks had decided to move down to the 19th pick.
That was fine, they picked up a couple of second round picks in the process and then drafted a point guard in Jerian Grant. The fanbase again erupted in cheers even though it was clear that they weren't making the pick for themselves. The trade was soon announced and Grant was on his way to New York in exchange for shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr.
The internet and the fanbase responded as you would expect. Hardaway Jr was coming off of a season in which he was not good while playing for a bad Knicks team. Many pundits bashed the trade for the Hawks not because they chose to acquire Hardaway but that they elected to give up a first round pick to do so.
Our own Jason Walker wrote that the trade challenged Hawks fans to believe in the process but lets just say that a large number spent the rest of the number being loudly skeptical.
Hardaway Jr was in good spirits as training camp and was excited for his opportunity with the Hawks. What struck me first about him was that he understood what the criticisms of his game were. When asked about what he would bring to the team he answered "more defense, more defense and more defense" which was notable since he spent very little time actually defending while with the Knicks.
However, saying it and doing it is two different things and Hardaway got off to a very slow start as preseason play began. Perhaps surprisingly, his defense wasn't bad in those preseason games but he was struggling to find his place in Atlanta's offensive system. Of course his early struggles just intensified the outrage over the trade and that all came to a head on opening night when he was made inactive.
That was certainly the low point for Hardaway who played very little early on and made a couple of trips to the D-League. Budenholzer and his staff continued to laud his work ethic and that he was working hard and progressing.
His opportunity came in January when he finally joined the rotation. He improved every month topping out in March 46 percent from the floor and converted 43 percent of his three-point attempts. The team started to win also and that coincided with Hardaway bolstering the bench unit.
Hardaway went from being inactive to being a key piece of the team's rotation and in the process turned a lot off those jeers that we heard early into cheers by March. How loud were they? So loud that some suggested he should be the team's starting shooting guard which of course required us to tell everyone that they should pump the brakes just a bit.
A hamstring injury in the final game of the regular season slowed Hardaway in the playoffs. He saw limited action in nine games and while the team insisted he was healthy, he at times didn't appear to be moving with quite the same burst.
Essentially Tim Hardaway Jr was the same offensive player that he has always been. Streaky. He knocked down 43 percent of his shots for the season and that was on par to what he did as a rookie. Atlanta limited his opportunity and in doing so made him more efficient. The key will be maintaining that same efficiency while raising his usage.
Defensively is where Hardaway made great strides as a player. He finished with a defensive rating of 98.0. Individual defensive ratings can be a bit misleading but this number suggests that Hardaway didn't hurt the team defensively while he was on the floor. Most importantly, he recognized that he wasn't going to get an opportunity on the floor with the Hawks until he improved defensively as a player. That is an important step forward for a lot of young players.
I have never seen a player go from underrated to overrated as fast as Hardaway did with the fan base this season. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Finding consistency offensively while continuing to improve on the defensive end is key for his growth as a player. Can he get there? No one really knows but the Hawks have had good success with guys like DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore taking sizable leaps forward in their second seasons with the team.
For Hardaway, the time is now. Atlanta ironically announced they had picked up his option for next season on opening day when he was inactive. He will make $2.2 million in 2017 before entering restricted free agency the next season. Atlanta's roster could be in flux over the next couple of years particularly with Kent Bazemore's free agent status and Kyle Korver's age. It is on Hardaway to prove that he can be the answer to those questions.