Tim Hardaway Jr. is silencing his critics and morphing into the leader that the New York Knicks desperately needed this season.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Year one of Tim Hardaway Jr.’s four-year contract did not go as planned. The swingman inked a new deal with the New York Knicks in 2017 worth just under $71 million, but he struggled to stay healthy for a huge chunk of the year. Furthermore, he struggled to maintain consistency even when he was healthy.

There were flashes of brilliance, but long stretches of poor shooting became an issue for Hardaway. During one particular 10-game period, Hardaway shot 31 percent from the field and 17 percent from deep. Hardly the type of production Steve Mills expected when they signed Hardaway to become one of the team’s main scorers.

Just when it looked like Hardaway may never break out, he exploded for 32 first-half points against the Washington Wizards. It was everything the Knicks hoped Hardaway could become. He was aggressive going to the basket, ran Washington’s defense ragged around screens, and energized the Garden crowd.

But he followed up his first-half performance with five points in the second half and the Knicks blew a sizable lead. It was a microcosm for Hardaway’s season. There was little consistency from half to half, let alone game to game.

Hardaway is writing a new story this season.

Of course, he’s working through a bit of a cold streak, but he’s been far more consistent. He’s taking on the primary scoring duties in Kristaps Porzingis’ absence and his offensive numbers are better.

But this season has been about more than numbers for Hardaway. He’s taking on a leadership role and he’s acting as a guiding voice for a team that needs a veteran to show the young guys the way. To put it simply, Tim Hardaway Jr. is leading his team and silencing his critics.

First Option

To be honest, Hardaway’s stats this year are a mixed bag. He’s averaging 22.1 points on 40 percent shooting from the floor. That percentage is mediocre, but he’s shooting 36 percent from downtown which is an upgrade from his 32 percent from last season. Hardaway is shooting the three-ball as well as he did during his rookie season with the Knicks and his first year with the Atlanta Hawks. That being said, he’s shooting nearly twice the attempts he did during his rookie campaign.

But let’s look past the box score stats and take a peek into the advanced analytics. Again, this is a bit of a mixed bag. Hardaway is in the 39th percentile for points per shot attempt among wings per Cleaning the Glass. A recent slump has him dipping below the 40th percentile, but he’s been floating around the middle of the pack for much of the season.

So if Hardaway ranks in the 39th percentile for PSA among wings, how in the world is he silencing his critics? Well, take one look at his usage rate and that could explain why his shooting percentages and PSA are somewhat problematic. Hardaway ranks in the 93rd percentile among wings with a usage rate of 27.8 percent per Cleaning the Glass. That’s more than five percent higher than any other year in his career.

Porzingis’ absence looms large. Hardaway has become the de facto first option without KP. Of course, Enes Kanter shoulders much of the scoring load, but he’s mainly an offensive rebounder and low post scorer. The Knicks need a guy who can go find his own shot. For better or worse, Hardaway is that guy right now.

As a result, he’s forced into taking some tough shots. He’s taking the contested shots that Porzingis took last season. That’s a huge reason for why he’s not putting up remarkably efficient numbers.

That being said, Hardaway’s attacking mindset is shining through in how he’s drawing fouls this year. His attempts per game increased by almost three. Additionally, his floor fouled percentage and shooting fouled percentages are both up, per Cleaning the Glass. Perhaps this is cherrypicking on my part to create a narrative that Hardaway is playing well. But anyone who is watching the Knicks this season can tell that Hardaway is attacking with a much different, more aggressive mindset now.

The Leadership Vacuum

Someone needed to fill a void in the Knicks locker room. Enes Kanter has the primetime personality to take on a leadership role, Lance Thomas has the long tenure in New York that brings a certain level of respect, and Courtney Lee has the experience to be a major voice in the locker room. All of this is true, but early rotation shuffling rubbed Kanter the wrong way and injuries have slowed down Thomas and Lee at different times this season.

The Knicks needed someone to step up and take ownership as a leader. Much like Hardaway took control of the primary scoring duties, he also seems to be taking control in the locker room. Hardaway has done that and then some. He’s always in the locker room answering questions in the postgame. It doesn’t matter if he just suffered a brutal defeat or took one on the chin—literally. He’s almost always willing to speak with the media and take the onus of answering the tough questions.

But on Saturday night, it was Frank Ntilikina who needed to answer the tough questions. In a thrilling overtime victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, Frank never saw the floor. Reporters gathered around the second-year player to ask questions about his first ever DNP-Coach’s Decision. Ntilikina knew he had to answer questions and he was completely professional about it. But before Ntilikina could answer his first question, Hardaway let everyone in the locker room know he had his teammate’s back.

To be clear, Ntilikina and Hardaway both know the deal. The media needs to ask the tough questions and they both stand tall to answer these questions. But Hardaway’s gesture was noticeable nonetheless.

In Closing

Perhaps I’m viewing Tim Hardaway Jr.’s season through rose-colored glasses, but his impact transcends any analytics his critics can point to. His numbers are somewhat ambiguous, but that should change with Porzingis’ return. Expect Hardaway’s offensive efficiency to increase when Porzingis makes his return—whenever that may be. With defenses keying on the 7-foot-3 Latvian, Hardaway should see more open looks. For now, he’s the team’s primary scorer, despite the fact that he’s much better suited for a secondary scoring role.

Moreover, I cringe when I hear fans, media, or reporters who are utterly unconnected make grand assumptions about what goes on behind the scenes. We don’t know exactly what goes on in the locker room when the cameras are off and the reporters are out of sight. But we all saw that brief moment between Ntilikina and Hardaway. There’s no denying that Hardaway is emerging as a leader and silencing his critics in the process.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.