It’s the little things.
Sure, Tim Hardaway Jr. has taken some big strides in his time with the Hawks. In a well-documented journey, the Knicks’ first-round draft pick in 2013 was traded to the Hawks two years ago, overcame a wrist injury, did a stint in the NBA Development League and improved as a defender.
Now, Hardaway is making the little strides necessary to take his game to the next level. The path to becoming a complete basketball player involves the details of the game such as knowing when to drive to the basket or how to create extra space to get a better shot attempt.
“To take the next step you have to be able to think the game through instead of just going out there and playing,” teammate Paul Millsap said. “I think he is getting better at it. He’s still a young guy. He’s still learning. But he’s getting better thinking about the game, making good reads and making the proper play.”
Hardaway has become an integral part of the Hawks this season — both as a starter for injured players and as a reserve. He has provided a scoring spark off the bench. He has scored in double figures in 22 of the past 23 games, including a team-high 20 consecutive games. He started 12 of those games.
For the Hawks’ coaching staff, the small steps of Hardaway’s development was capsulized in a defensive stand earlier this season. In a February game at the Trail Blazers, the Hawks trailed by two points, 97-95, with less than 30 seconds remaining. They chose to defend the Trail Blazers’ possession as C.J. McCollum had the ball. Hardaway drew the assignment. He harassed McCollum into a step-back jumper that missed. The Hawks got the rebound with 2.2 seconds remaining. Millsap would score at the buzzer to force overtime, and the Hawks won 109-104.
“It was everything we worked on,” Hardaway said when recalling the play. “We knew down two, the ball was going to go to C.J. … Going against a premier scorer, a big-time player, a lot of guys have a lot of respect for him. I have a lot of respect for C.J. Just being able to stay in front, make it hard on him, make it a difficult shot. Luckily, he missed.
“The ball hit the front of the rim and bounced a little bit. Thankfully, it went out and we had an opportunity to win the game.”
Hardaway, who turned 25 on Thursday, remained in Atlanta over the summer to continue to work on his game with coaches and teammates. Hawks coaches requested he stay. After a conversation with his agent Mark Bartelstein, he remained and was a constant presence in the gym. Hardaway said he felt he took a step back the previous summer. He was determined not to let that happen again.
“The fact is he is really beginning to understand the subtleties of the game,” Bartelstein said. “If you work on the little things, the basketball gods will reward you with big things.”
Hardaway is the Hawks’ third-leading scorer both in total points (910) and per game average (13.8). He trails only Millsap and Dennis Schroder. He has also made a 3-pointer in 20 consecutive games.
Hardaway has set career highs in points, rebounds (176), assists (141) and steals (48).
“It’s a ladder,” Hardaway said. “You build on as the year progresses and as the years go on. Each year you pick up new things, new ways to get to the basket, get to the foul line and little things like that. On the defensive end, everything will take care of itself as you get older and more mature and understand how to read defenses a lot better.”
Many among the Hawks’ fan base would like to see Hardaway become a permanent fixture in the starting lineup. Coach Mike Budenholzer said he intends to keep Hardaway as an offensive spark off the bench. He often is the first reserve and plays extended minutes down the stretch of games. He averages 17.4 points in 33.2 minutes in 18 games as a starter and 12.4 points in 23.1 minutes in 48 games as a reserve.
Hardaway ranks seventh in the NBA in scoring off the bench, at 12.4 points per game.
“The more the ball and scoring opportunities are put in his hands and he is making decisions — drive, pass, shoot, getting open, when to go fast, when to go slow, when to be physical,” Budenholzer said. “He is doing a lot of those things well. A lot of it will come with more opportunities. He has shown an ability to be not just a scorer, but to make reads and decisions.
“I’m pretty happy with where he is, but we are putting the ball in his hands a little more. Can he be that secondary pick-and-roll guy, secondary ball-handler?”
Hardaway has put himself in the conversation for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award along with the Wizards’ Otto Porter.
The Hawks did not extend a qualifying offer to Hardaway in October. He will become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. The Hawks can match any offer he signs with another team. There likely will be a line of suitors and a considerable pay raise from his $2.28 million salary. Hardaway said it’s “human nature” to think about what the summer might entail. However, his concentration is controlling what he can on the court.
And those little things.
“If you are up here working out with your coaching staff and working out with your teammates, then the rewards are endless,” Hardaway said. “I’m prevailing right now.”