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Is Tim Hardaway Jr. Worth a Long-term Investment?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Sacramento Kings Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawks acquired Tim Hardaway Jr. on draft night in 2015 in what many observers considered a controversial transaction at best when, basically, they traded their first round draft pick for him. He was coming off a terrible second season in the league but had played on a bad team in one of the more dysfunctional organizations (Knicks) in the league. Hardaway Jr. would get off to a very slow start his first year with the Hawks as a result of both an injury that impacted the beginning of his individual season and maybe a surprisingly big gap to overcome in the area of his defensive techniques and decision making. The final 25 games or so of last season saw him being entrusted with consistent minutes off the bench and encouraging offensive play especially in the form of his perimeter shooting.

He has clearly taken another step forward this season. He is shooting the ball well overall even if he has still not displayed the most impressive consistency and he is averaging more than 25 minutes per game, a career high. It is now not surprising in the least to see him lead the team in scoring on any given night. He has gotten 17 starts as teammates have dealt with absences due to injuries and I think the consensus is that he has not looked out of place at all in that role. At this point in the season, he is usually the first player off the bench for Coach Budenholzer’s team and has very consistently become part of the unit that plays the closing stretch in most games.

As Hardaway Jr. approaches restricted free agency this summer (he and the Hawks were unable to reach an agreement on an extension to his rookie contract prior to the October 31 deadline) the fan base seems almost evenly split as to whether the Hawks should invest a significant financial commitment to keep him or not. This is a perfect example of why the analysis and grading of trades within 24 hours of consummation have such little value. If the Hawks decline to make the commitment to keeping him I think we would all agree that the Hawks did not get enough value in the deal. If he is retained and provides an acceptable return of value to the contract, the trade will have turned out to be a clear win.

But the key question in attempting to unlock any of this is: how good is he?

Shooting

Hardaway Jr. is shooting a career best 45.2% from the field this season including 35.6% from 3-point range. He is shooting just above a 40% clip from distance since January 1 (30 games), which is probably the baseline mark for a shooting guard to be considered a plus shooter. But his volume is up to almost 6 attempts per game from 4.6 attempts per game prior to January 1 (31 games) and from only 2.8 attempts per game last season (51 games). Most experts consider that when a player is able to maintain or improve a shooting percentage as volume increases that this can be trusted as reliable improvement.

To put his 2017 calendar performance into perspective, only 8 players have played 15 games or more, averaged 5.5 3-point attempts per game and have converted at a higher percentage than Hardaway Jr.; check some of the names: Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson, CJ McCollum, Bradley Beal, Isaiah Thomas.

Most experts I follow trust that when perimeter shooting improves at the same time free show shooting improves that this is the most reliable statistical progression that can be trusted. In this department, there has been cause for caution in the play of Hardaway Jr. this season. After converting more than 80% of his free throws in each of his first 3 seasons, including being just a single make away from 90% last season, he has regressed to being a 72% shooter from the line this season. That may not seem significant bit there was cause for real concern even earlier in the season; maybe he this is being corrected. Check out his month by month results:

October/November: 64% (25 attempts)

December: 67% (24 attempts)

January: 70% (30 attempts)

February/March: 83% (52 attempts)

It might seem a little crazy, but in order for his improvement to be as trustworthy as possible it would be encouraging to see him convert 85% or so of his free throws the rest of this season. I think that he often looks like a better shooter than he actually is at times to Hawks fans because of how lacking the team in this area. But it can’t really be argued that he is in a pretty elite class when you look at the analysis of his play since January 1.

Play-Making

This might actually be the area that is most critical to assess in terms of determining his longer-term value. Why? Because as lacking as the Hawks are in the area of perimeter shooting they are in even worse shape, in my opinion, in the area of offensive creation. DeAndre’ Bembry was surely drafted last summer in hopes of addressing this at some point in the future but the team will absolutely need to see if he can develop as a shooter prior to banking on being able to count on him to contribute in this department regularly down the road.

Hardaway Jr. is certainly be trusted with more opportunity as can be demonstrated by the fact that he trails only Dennis Schroder (27.1%) and Paul Millsap (24.3%) with a usage of 22.7%. This is a significant increase from last season when he ranked 10th on the team with a usage of only 16.4%; he played almost exclusively off of the ball last season as an offensive spacer. Again, according to generally accepted NBA philosophy, seeing his production maintain or improve while also being asked to handle increased responsibility pretty reliably means the improvement can be trusted.

In addition to the general increase in him being asked to handle more offensive responsibility, you can see a progression in his play creating plays in the pick and roll. If the Hawks are going to invest in him he must be able to perform well in this area as critical as this action is to their overall scheme. Of the 4 Hawks rotation guards, Hardaway Jr. measures out best (even slightly ahead of Schroder) per NBA.com in overall effectiveness in this area. While Schroder scores with a little more frequency in the pick and roll action (41% of the time to THJ’s 39.8%), Hardaway Jr. gets to the free throw line more frequently and turns the ball over with less frequency than does Schroder.

Last season, Hardaway Jr registered maybe 25 total possessions as a creator in the pick and roll with results that put him in the bottom 10% percentile in terms of overall performance. This season he is better than 63% of other players in the league in this category on approximately 119 possessions. The theme is consistent: more workload and improved production. By general logic, this should be pretty trust-worthy.

Summary

There are certainly other things to consider; for example, NBA wings are considered to have much more value when they have positional versatility on defense (THJ does not) and any organization would still prefer to have a much greater sample size upon which to base a decision such as (which supports the narrative that the trade was problematic at best). Also, Kent Bazemore’s contract and role does not make this decision point any less complex. But after reflecting upon this analysis, one thing to me is undeniable: the play of Tim Hardaway Jr. over the Hawks final 19 games of the regular season and into the post-season will be critical. In my opinion there are encouraging things to see in his game but the evaluation the Hawks need in order to make the right financial decision this summer is far from complete.