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The Tim Hardaway Jr. Experiment

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As the guard nears free agency, he may be about to cash in on a year of steady improvement

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Tim Hardaway Jr. experiment is almost over. That doesn’t mean Hardaway won’t be a Hawk in the 2017-18 season, but part of the reason Atlanta traded for him was his cheap rookie deal, which is about to end. The team’s goal was always to develop Hardaway into a skilled rotation player on his current deal, and whatever comes after that is of secondary importance.

Hardaway’s future salary and presence on the team are both unclear right now. The Hawks have plenty of players who play his position, and could easily fill his place on the roster if they want to this summer. However, Hardaway has improved in many ways this season, and that improvement shouldn’t be taken lightly.

When the Hawks traded for Hardaway, they envisioned a skilled shooter who could play adequate (read: not awful) defense primarily off the bench. As anyone who follows the team knows, that didn’t pan out in 2015-16. Hardaway shot 33.6% on three-pointers en route to a disappointing first season in Atlanta.

in 2016-17, he has made some marked improvements. His three-point percentage sits at 34.9 for the year, which is a nice improvement (even if it’s only around league average) from 2015-16. However, this number obscures his full transformation as the season progresses.

Hardaway shot 29.8% on three-point shots from the beginning of the season until December 31. From that point on, he has hit a much more impressive 40.3% of those same shots. The Hawks have struggled offensively over the last 10 games or so, but it’s nearly impossible to pin this on Hardaway. In the calendar year of 2017 so far, he has been everything Atlanta hoped for.

Of course, it’s possible that this hot shooting is just a statistical blip and that Hardaway is going to return to normal. But given that he’s still young, and has shown remarkable consistency since the end of December, it’s also possible that fans are finally seeing his full potential. Even if he can only be a 37-38% three-point shooter, he will still be a valuable player.

In addition, Hardaway has improved nearly every aspect of his game to go along with better shooting. His on/off court statistics reflect this gain, since the Hawks have played better with him on the floor in 2016-17. Atlanta has a offensive rating of 108.4 and a defensive rating of 103.0 with Hardaway playing. Without him, the numbers shift to 97.4 and 103.7, respectively. The most significant number is the offensive rating. The defense has been about the same without or without Hardaway, but the offense takes a major hit when he is on the bench.

When one considers that the Hawks as a team have a negative net rating, the fact that Atlanta posts a positive rating of 5.4 with Hardaway playing is significant. The sample size for this statistic is somewhat smaller since he normally doesn’t play starters’ minutes, but over the course of a full season it still stands out. From shooting to defense, Hardaway has become a much more valuable player than he was last season.

As always, these numbers don’t say everything. Hardaway hasn’t proved that he is a surefire starter yet, since he has still played most of his minutes as a backup . There is certainly room to believe that he can be a starting-caliber player soon (or even is right now), but this is still not proven. The Hawks’ schedule is also about to get much more difficult, and it will be interesting to see if Hardaway’s numbers hold up against better defenses in March and April.

At this point in the year though, it’s difficult to say anything too negative about Hardaway. He has made huge improvements to nearly every aspect of his game, and is a large reason why this Hawks team is where it is now. Predicting that Hardaway would be a valuable rotation piece for Atlanta would have looked risky back in August, but he has been everything the Hawks hoped he would be in the 2016-17 season.