New York Knicks small forward Tim Hardaway Jr. was always going to be up against it.
Looked upon as Carmelo Anthony's replacement even before the 10-time All-Star was dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Hardaway's inking of a four-year, $71 million contract over the summer was met with confusion and plenty of scrutinies.
The former Knicks first-round draft pick was proving to be not much more than a rotational player, which was one of the reasons why New York traded him to the Atlanta Hawks in 2015.
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Playing in a more prominent role down South last season, Hardaway had the best season of his career, averaging 14.5 points and 2.3 assists per game. Decent numbers for a player that was hitting free agency while continuing to develop.
With Anthony's future uncertain, the Knicks had to find an option to step in should he be dealt during the offseason. Rather puzzlingly, it turned out to be Hardaway after the Hawks declined to match the New York's exorbitant offer sheet.
Then came the headlines.
"The Knicks' offer sheet to Tim Hardaway Jr. is the first truly bad contract of the 2017 offseason," read a USA Today piece.
The reactions were understandable considering this was new general manager Scott Perry's first big move. Even Hardaway was "surprised" that the Knicks offered him that much. And he didn't really help himself when he revealed to the media that Knicks management told him "you have to obviously improve a lot more on defense and a lot more on the offensive end."
For those keeping score at home, that's basically his entire game.
Four games into the season and things were going just as badly as you might have expected. The Knicks were 1-3 and Hardaway was averaging just 9.8 points per game with an average game score of 1.55. Those who don't know game score, it's a metric like player efficiency ratings that measure just how effective a player is on any given night.
Here is how you calculate it (don't try this at home):
Game Score = Points Scored + (0.4 x Field Goals) – (0.7 x Field Goal Attempts) – (0.4 x (Free Throw Attempts – Free Throws)) + (0.7 x Offensive Rebounds) + (0.3 x Defensive Rebounds) + Steals + (0.7 x Assists) + (0.7 x Blocks) – (0.4 x Personal Fouls) – Turnovers
So obviously, that score of 1.55 is not very good.
But something clicked and Hardaway suddenly looked far more relaxed within the Knicks offense and was aggressive with the rock. He started hitting open shots with authority and slashing to the basket to open things up for the offense.
Starting with a 34-point effort in a surprising win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 29, Hardaway has averaged 21.7 points per night while his game score swelled to an average of 16.2.
Highlights of Tim Hardaway Jr dropping 34 during the Knicks win over the Cavs! pic.twitter.com/D3qNeOyKAW— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 30, 2017
His biggest test came when Kristaps Porzingis, the team's offensive focal point, sat out of Wednesday night's game against the Orlando Magic, resulting in far more defensive pressure falling upon him. Hardaway handled it well, dropping 26 despite the loss.
There are still glaring issues in his game that need addressing, mostly on the defensive side of the ball as his -2.2 defensive box plus/minus is tied for second-lowest on the team. But if he can continue to develop into a reliable scorer, that $71 million contract might not look so bad in a year or two.