The Knicks are set to turn the page on a new chapter in their history, with the likes of Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina taking center stage. As the team’s prized draft selections in 2015 and 2017, respectively, they represent the promise of the future — two cornerstones for the organization to build around. In trading Carmelo Anthony, New York can now start fresh and begin to build from the ground up with youthful talent and (hopefully soon enough) flexible contracts.
Ironically enough, the summer’s top acquisition in Tim Hardaway Jr., only checks one of those boxes. At 25, he’s certainly young and the only way to go is up. Still, the Knicks paid quite the pretty penny to reel their 2014 first round draft choice back to the Big Apple. Hardaway Jr.’s four year, $71 million contract is complete with a player option, trade kicker, and an early payment stipulation. Now, it’s likely that such a steep commitment will overshadow the young gun’s tenure, much like the four year, $71 million contract that Joakim Noah signed in 2016 has followed him.
The circumstances between the two are certainly different. Noah has failed to perform at a high level due to continued injuries and a very irresponsible suspension that plagued him last season and will continue to do this year as well. Hardaway Jr. has youth and potential on his side as he validates his worth. Nevertheless, one could make the argument that Noah’s contract was easier to justify due to his past accomplishments: he’s a two-time NBA all-star, a former Defensive Player of the Year, and has won in a major way with two NCAA titles.
Where does this leave Hardaway Jr.? How can he ensure that the potential stigmatism of being overpaid does not engulf him as he begins his second tenure with the Knicks?
Whereas Noah was rewarded for past and proven results, New York assumedly acquired Hardaway Jr. after continuing to watch his progress. The team is looking forward to the type of player he can continue to evolve into, and that’s the key. As a member of the Hawks last season, Hardaway Jr. averaged a career-high 14.5 points with respectable shooting percentages (also career-bests) of 46% from the field and 36% from downtown. He was more efficient on the offensive end and showed a mature work ethic with a higher commitment to improving defensively.
That’s the Tim Hardaway Jr. the Knicks want and hope they get. Through five preseason games, the guard looked especially potent on offense, tallying 17.8 points with a shooting clip of 51/43/83. He played assertively, but masked in his solid statistics were the same questionable decisions Hardaway Jr. made during his first tenure as a Knick. There’s still an overzealous nature in his game. Much like Porzingis will be tasked with being regarded as a primary option for the first time in his career, Hardaway Jr. will need to adjust to serving as a number two. Without a player like Anthony to hide behind, the pressure will be on. What’s more, the four-year veteran only started 30 games last year. Donning orange and blue once again, Hardaway Jr. will need to embrace playing more minutes and doing so during crunch time.
These are all changes that may make it difficult for Hardaway Jr. to live up to the expectations and play to the potential of his contract. After all, he, like many others on this squad, is sure to experience some defensive growing pains as well. Despite the hope for improvement, no one will be able to take exception with Hardaway Jr.’s level of play if he simply continues what he started last season. That’s the least he should be able to do. Scoring 16 points per game, with a clip of 46/38/80 and an increased reliability on defense (after all, playing during crunch time should mean defending an opponent’s top guard(s)) would help Hardaway Jr. provide his team with meaningful services.
It’s imperative, however, that he indeed plays up to that level. He can’t revert back to the player New York gave up on rather quickly. Instead, Hardaway Jr. needs to prove that last season was not a fluke. If he can do that, it’d be hard to criticize him. It’d be beneficial if his game continues to ascend, but what the Knicks see (now) should at least be what they begin to get.