Tim Hardaway Jr. had missed his first five shots from the field and Michigan was down nine points with under eight minutes to play. The stage was as about as small as can be for a Big Ten game, a relatively innocuous Sunday noon tip off at Penn State in front of a mere 8300 fans. Regardless of the setting, the next eight minutes transformed Tim Hardaway Jr. into a star. Hardaway went on to score 13, and assist five more, of Michigan’s final 26 points as the Wolverines stormed back to escape Happy Valley with a three point win.
Hardaway never looked back. Up until that game, the freshman wing guard averaged 11.5 points per game with a 46% effective field goal percentage. Respectable numbers but nothing compared to the 17.5 points game, and 70% eFG%, that he averaged over Michigan’s final 12 games. Suddenly Michigan was instinctively running its offense through the freshman and, time and again, he was producing. He wasn’t just making shots, he was making the most important shots. He was usually the Michigan player that would spearhead one of the Wolverines many herculean second half comebacks over the final month of the season. And he was no longer just a jump-shooter, he was creating offense for himself and others, picking up 26 of his 59 assists in that final 12 game span. A star was born before our eyes.
- Clutch: Hardaway wanted the ball with the game on the line and he earned that right by making a number of big shots. He wasn’t perfect, no one is, but he made a habit of putting together second half scoring bursts that completely changed the complexion of games. If he had a slow first half, the crowd knew that a second half scoring barrage was inevitable and they were seldom disappointed.
- Three Point Shooting: Hardaway scored 47% of his points from behind the three point line and improved his perimeter shooting as the season wore on. He struggled mightily with shot selection in the first half of the season and was shooting under 30% from distance near the end of January. His remarkable shooting performance over the final two months of the season pushed that number all the way to 37%. Hardaway connected on 44% of his three point attempts in Big Ten games and the sky appears to be the limit in regards to his three-point shooting.
- Scoring: Hardaway is probably the only true scorer on the Michigan roster. He’s primarily a shooter but he has demonstrated other elements of his game, from mid-range to the pick and roll, which prove his scoring ability. Once he knocks down a couple threes he’s almost impossible to guard off of the pick and roll, especially as he becomes more comfortable driving the basket.
Room for Improvement
- Creating for Others: Hardaway improved in this regard, especially as he became comfortable utilizing the pick-and-roll, but he hasn’t reached his ceiling. His assist rate was just 12% on the season which is very pedestrian, even for a primary scorer.
- Rebounding: Hardaway isn’t a bad rebounder but he certainly has the tools to become a much better rebounder. He rebounded 12% of opponents’ misses, a number that’s similar to Manny Harris as a freshman. Harris improved his defensive rebounding rate to 19% during his sophomore year, good enough for top 10 in the Big Ten. I don’t think Hardaway needs to improve that much but he has the tools and athleticism to post a defensive rebounding rate around 15-17% during his sophomore season.
- Attacking the Basket: It’s tough to list this as an area of improvement because Hardaway showed improvement as the season progressed. It feels like we always knew that he had the ability to attack the basket but we will see it more as his confidence continues to grow.
The most impressive aspect of Tim Hardaway Jr.’s season was that we were able to see him progress so far as a player in just one year. This wasn’t offseason improvement, Hardaway became a different player from game 1 to game 12 and game 12 to game 25. He seemed to improve every time out. And he didn’t improve by using more possessions, he simply used them more efficiently. He took better shots with more confidence and transformed from jumpshooter to playmaker.
The three position in John Beilein’s offense is generally the primary shot taker and, after one season, Hardaway appears to be the perfect fit for that position. He is comfortable shooting the three, running the pick and roll and coming off of curls. The fact that he was so successful over the final month of the season leaves Michigan fans dreaming of what he can do next year.
It’s impossible to expect Hardaway to shoot as well as he did in the final month of the 2011 season. But as he improves his ball handling, passing and defensive abilities he will be able to influence the game in far more ways than he did as a freshman.
A summer in the gym with his teammates, father and USA-U19 hopefuls should do him nothing but good. The fact that Hardaway was able to improve so much during the season makes it almost impossible to expect anything but more improvement during the offseason. He has the tools, the work ethic and the opportunity. All we can do is sit back and wait to see what Hardaway adds to his game during the offseason.