1. Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s career at Michigan was an unquestionable success:
- He was named unanimously to the Big Ten All-Freshman team in 2011.
- He was named third-team All-Conference in 2012.
- He was named to the first-team by the coaches and second-team by the media last year.
- He helped lead Michigan to three straight NCAA Tournaments in his three years.
- He was arguably the second-best player on each of all three teams.
- Hardaway and the Wolverines won a share of the 2012 Big Ten Title (Michigan’s first since 1986).
- And most importantly, they reached the 2013 Final Four (the school’s first since 1993).
When Hardaway committed to Michigan way back in 2009, he was a generic three-star from Miami slapped with the "shooter" label – and he hadn't received much, if any, interest from the in-state triumvirate of Florida-FSU-Miami. After three years at Michigan, he was taken in the first round of the NBA Draft.
2. The resume is quite solid; yet still, there was a sort of pessimism that plagued Tim over the course of his career. He always was mercurial and because of his role – the type of high-usage, versatile scoring wing role occupied by Manny Harris before him – Hardaway’s performances had a high amount of variance between them. It seemed as if he was just as likely to have bouts of chronically poor shot selection and inefficiency as he was to have his torrid shooting performances and gamebreaking scoring binges. For a while (and particularly in his underwhelming sophomore season), it looked as if there wasn't a middle ground between Tim’s highs and his lows.
3. Part of that was due to sky-high (and perhaps unreasonable) expectations for Hardaway. Leading up to his freshman season, there were rumors that he could potentially be the team’s best player. That season, he was second on the team with 13.9 points per game, and turned out to be an excellent backcourt pairing with Darius Morris (a ball-dominant point guard who was an extremely good passer). The thing is, Tim showed flashes of star ability. He put up some big single-game point totals during his freshman year – 30 at Iowa, 26 vs. Northwestern, 22 at Minnesota, 20 vs. Michigan St., 20 vs. Minnesota, 20 vs. Bryant – and deserves a ton of credit for his tremendous run of form to help carry Michigan into the NCAA Tournament.
4. That sustained hot streak might have been the apex of Tim Hardaway’s career and deserves special mention. Michigan entered that 2010-2011 with no expectations, lingering hot-seat talk about John Beilein (which was exacerbated when Michigan looked every bit the Big Ten bottom-feeder they were supposed to be), and hardly any experience in the rotation – save for Zack Novak and Stu Douglass. After an 11-9 start (1-6 Big Ten), Michigan went on to notch a pivotal road upset over Michigan State, and from that point, closed with an 8-3 finish to the regular season, finished tied for fourth in the conference, and won a Big Ten Tournament game before receiving a bid to the NCAA Tournament. A lot of the credit for that winning streak should go to Hardaway; in those eleven games, he scored 18 PPG, shot 48.5% from three (33-68) and his physical tools combined with a deadeye shot and a propensity for scoring in bunches signaled a seemingly limitless potential for Tim. He carried the team in crucial games during that stretch against Indiana (26 points), Iowa (30), and Minnesota (22), all of which were on the road. 20 points in the second half at home against MSU in the season finale to seal a tournament bid was a fitting end to Hardaway’s excellent regular season. As Michigan managed to save its season during that stretch in which it seemed as if every game was a must-win, Hardaway was going on those characteristic scoring binges and at times, carrying Michigan single-handedly on offense. Without him, the Wolverines probably wouldn't have made the tournament, and the timeline for the last few years of Michigan basketball likely would have been much different. And the key point – seeing him as the clear-cut best player on the floor as a freshman was sure to increase expectations.
5. After that level of play over those two months, it was certainly reasonable to be very optimistic about Tim’s career and his prospects moving forward. It was logical to extrapolate from the extended hot streak that, if he were able to be more consistent, he'd be an elite college shooting guard and a surefire NBA prospect. Hardaway was more efficient as a freshman (with a still-impressive usage rate) than Manny Harris was as a junior and it looked like – with Tim’s elite size at the two-guard, his ability in transition, and aesthetically pleasing shooting stroke – that he would be Michigan’s best player moving forward after Darius Morris’s departure. Hardaway’s most apparent strengths were a great fit for Michigan’s offense, especially considering the hole at the point guard spot.
6. Hardaway's sophomore year was when his weaknesses became apparent. With Trey Burke's seamless ascension to the starting point guard spot – and its necessarily demanding requirement to be the catalyst for the offense – Tim was neither the focal point of the offense nor was he the team’s best player. Poor shot selection, a bugaboo throughout his career, and a seeming lack of composure and confidence affected Hardaway, who took a notable step back as a player during that disappointing sophomore campaign. It was a statistically similar season to his freshman year, but what stuck out was his drop from a 36.7 three-point percentage to 28.3% (Hardaway did increase it to 37.1% in his junior year). The biggest thing was that the expected freshman-to-sophomore leap did not happen and Tim proved to be more inconsistent than he was during his freshman year.
7. Memories of that sophomore season enhanced Hardaway's reputation as streaky, inconsistent, and prone to taking himself out of a given game with a combination of high-volume inefficiency – due to his often-bad shot selection – and bouts of inexplicably cold shooting. That’s all fair. Tim Hardaway did not eventually evolve into that dynamic-scoring knockdown shooter that was tantalizingly on display during that standout freshman year and that sophomore year wound up being enigmatic and confusing. Why wasn't Hardaway getting better, or even worse, why did he regress? There isn’t a clear answer, and that’s frustrating, especially in the context of high expectations.
8. In all fairness, Tim’s sophomore season wasn’t really that bad. He was probably the second-best player on a team that won a share of the Big Ten Title, he scored over 14 PPG, and had several games in which he looked like a top-tier player. Interspersed with those were the games where he seemed invisible or those where he was actively and incredibly inefficient. That was the story of his season, and Hardaway’s inconsistency – not his shooting stroke, his transition prowess, or his general scoring ability – was the attribute that many focused on the most.
9. The meta-narrative of Tim’s career often focused on his stretches of cold shooting and generally poor play – those performances were met with ample criticism and the good games were reminders that Hardaway was capable of much, much more. All of that is warranted, but other parts of his game became overlooked. Aside from his shooting and that it entailed (inefficiency, bad shots, but also a pure stroke and semi-frequent hot streaks), Tim was also an above-average passer, a fairly decent defensive rebounder – particularly for a two-guard – excellent in transition, and a relatively capable defender. If the shooting wasn’t there, sometimes those other attributes suffered, but it’s not like Hardaway was a one-dimensional player by any means. In that often-criticized and largely disappointing sophomore year, he shot 53.5% from two-point range on 213 attempts. That’s excellent, particularly for a guard, and it’s still largely forgotten because of the low points of that season. Moreover, there was a sense among Michigan fans that something wasn't quite right with Hardaway, inferring much from seemingly poor body-language, bursts of frustration, and a sporadic lack of engagement on his part. He was disappointing during that season, but at the end of the day, he was still a good player. Hardaway had some horrifically bad games, but he was by no means a bad player (as evidenced by his third-team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore).
10. Because of all that, one of my favorite subplots to this past season was Tim’s year. In short, he shed the malaise that bothered him a year before, grabbed the "vocal leader" label laid down in the wake of Douglass and Novak’s departure, and was much closer to the player that we thought he’d be after his freshman year than to the one that he was as a sophomore. Hardaway was a key cog in Michigan’s explosive offense – rated by Kenpom as the top offense in the country. He was an adept shooter (if still inconsistent) and an elite transition player, often keying the break and frequently finishing opportunities provided by others. Hardaway also improved on his defensive rebounding abilities, played the best defense of his career, and fit very well into the pick-and-roll scheme both with the ball in his hands and off of the ball. There were weaknesses to his game – despite largely staying positive and reigning in his amount of ill-advised shots, he still had a tendency to disappear in games, had long spells of poor shooting over several games, and wasn’t the defensive stopper that he possibly could have been – but it still was probably the best basketball he played at Michigan.
11. And honestly, the proof is in the larger team context rather than simply just Hardaway’s individual performance. The lion’s share of credit for engineering the best offense in the country should rightfully go to Trey Burke – his virtuosic pick-and-roll play with his all-around passing and scoring ability was the core of Michigan’s offense – but each rotation player had a precise role in the type of offense that the Wolverines ran. Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary set screens and were the recipients of excellent team passing and scored well around the rim, with McGary generating offense with defense and rebounding. Nik Stauskas was a classic corner gunner, sometimes playing on the wing but often sitting in the left corner where he shot a ridiculous percentage. Glenn Robinson III was the corresponding right corner shooter as a stretch four, where he scored mostly off of excellent cuts, backside dishes from Burke, and lobs, both in transition and in the half-court. That leaves Hardaway as the other cornerstone of the Michigan offense and how it was comprised (others like Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert, and Jon Horford played complementary roles at the back-end of the rotation), and Tim did his job very well.
12. In a way, he reprised the same type of role that Manny Harris played at Michigan – Harris generated a lot of offense from the wing with an array of screen action, catch-and-shoot sets, and other types of sets designed largely to get him shots. As a freshman, Hardaway sort of inherited that role by default, although the shift to a pick-and-roll heavy offense placed the ball in Darius Morris’s hands the majority of the time. Because of that, the dynamic of the offense fundamentally changed Tim’s place in it: he became a more off-ball player and provided excellent supplementary scoring to either point guard he played with. While Morris and Burke led the team in scoring and generated a lot of offense with their astronomically high assist rates, Hardaway played off the ball, occasionally provided torrid scoring streaks, but largely functioned as the second-best option – he still had sets called for him, carried a lot of the scoring burden, and was asked to shoulder a lot of offensive responsibility.
13. Tim did this for the best offense in the country. Overall, he played with much more intelligence and composure than he did as a sophomore, assumed the role of a team leader, and noticeably improved overall as a player. Michigan’s offense wouldn't have been as explosive without Hardaway; he was an integral part of Michigan’s high-flying transition offense, both as a catalyst on the break and as a finisher at the rim. He still shot the ball fairly well, scored more efficiently, and let those sporadic funks affect him less than he had before. Burke got the accolades and credit for all of his success (and rightfully so), but the offense wouldn't have been as good without Hardaway. Michigan had its best season in two decades, had an electric offense, and made the Final Four. Despite all of Tim’s weaknesses – most of which were minimized in his junior year – and the lingering frustration with the dichotomy between what he was and what we thought he could have been after that stellar second-half to his freshman season, along with the inherent-but-inexplicable streakiness to his game, he was an excellent player for Michigan.
14. I started off this post with a list of Hardaway’s accomplishments because I think it’s easy to lose sight of the bottom line of Tim Hardaway’s career with some of the negative commentary surrounding it. Before he arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan had made the NCAA Tournament only once in over a decade; Hardaway played in the tournament thrice in three years as a Wolverine. Over those three years, Michigan was 35-19 in Big Ten play, won a share of the conference title once, and made the Final Four, coming close to a national championship. At the end of the day, Michigan’s basketball renaissance is Tim Hardaway’s legacy. He was a solid-to-very good player each of his three years in the program and was a vital player on three of the better Michigan basketball teams in a good part of two decades. It turned out the seemingly immense potential wasn’t really there and he never became the truly dominant player that he was for brief stretches, but still, it’s hard not to step back and think that it was a damn good career when considering Michigan’s recent basketball history. When Hardaway came to Michigan, the team was predicted to finish around ninth or tenth in the conference, and his last game as a Wolverine was a hard-fought battle in the Georgia Dome for a national championship.
15. We’ll see what happens next. Tim parlayed his solid junior season, along with a solid combine and reportedly good team interviews, into a late-first round selection by the Knicks. It’s easy to see him as a rotation player on the second-unit at first, with the potential to evolve into an effective transition and nominal three-and-D player in vogue right now in the league. I'm personally pretty bullish (and duly biased), but it's hard not to see the attitude change from Hardaway's sophomore to junior year and be confident that he's going to be successful in the NBA. He certainly was at Michigan.