Hardaway Earning Court Time With Defense-First Approach

Tim Hardaway Jr. and Al Horford have a common bond from before they teamed up on the Hawks.

"He and my brother were roommates in college," Horford said.

Hardaway spent three seasons playing for the University of Michigan. Jon Horford, Al's younger brother, played for the Wolverines from 2010 to 2014, and both were members of Michigan's 2013 NCAA runner-up team.

"I roomed with Jon my junior year, which was my last year there," Hardaway said. "I roomed with him on the road ever since we were freshmen. I've known Jon for a very, very long time. When I got traded here, I was with Jon. We were here (in Atlanta) working out."

Al met Hardaway once when the latter was still a collegian.

"I got a chance to meet up when I went up and saw Michigan play," Al said. "I was always very impressed with him, but it was just a very quick hello."

The duo of Horford and Hardaway has been part of one of the Hawks' most effective lineups this season. Of all the five-person lineups that have played 100 or more minutes in the NBA this season, the one featuring Hardaway, Horford, Dennis Schröder, Mike Scott and Thabo Sefolosha has posted the best defensive rating: 81.0 points allowed per 100 possessions. In total, the same group has outscored opponents by a total of 70 points in 127 minutes together. 

"Defensively, he’s bringing it," Horford said of Hardaway. "And when he can play defense the way he has been playing it, it just makes us a better team.”

Getting better on defense

Most of the Hardaway's minutes have come in the past two months, because earlier in the season he wasn't ready to be a regular fixture in the rotation. In that time, though, he still had an opportunity to grow and get ready. Hardaway averaged 18.8 points in five D-League games and spent even more time honing his game with the Hawks' development staff. 

Getting his body right was another factor in preparing the 23-year-old wing for game action. Hardaway suffered a wrist injury last March while playing for the New York Knicks, and the effects of the injury impacted his preparation for this season.

"I do think he had an injury that was a bit understated," Head Coach Mike Budenholzer said. "His conditioning and his strength coming off the summer probably wasn’t where we would like it to be, and ultimately defense is where that stuff tends to come out."

Hardaway credited Budenholzer and his teammates for preparing and pushing him.

“I had to get myself a more competitive spirit on the defensive end," Hardaway said. "I mean, it was there, but Coach Bud and a lot of the guys really implemented having the drive and the dog in you to go out and defend on that end of the floor."

Budenholzer said that Hardaway earned his spot in the rotation with a dedication to defense.

"He really wasn’t going to be getting the opportunities that he wanted, that every player craves," Budenholzer said, "if he wasn’t better and if we didn’t feel like he was committed to that end of the court the way he is right now. What he is doing on that end of the court – his activity and ability to get through screens and shift and rebound – I’m very pleased with his progress."

What does the progress look (and sound) like?

Here is a clip of Hardaway displaying those traits from when the Hawks went on a 33-6 run Feb. 22 against the Golden State Warriors. 

The play starts with Hardaway guarding Leandro Barbosa as Barbosa cuts out of the corner. Hardaway fights through a screen set by Steph Curry, an ever-treacherous task because any mistake likely frees the NBA's reigning MVP for an easy score.

But Hardaway fights through the screen, as he has often done in recent weeks.

"He’s getting through screens so much better," Budenholzer said. "There are so many pick and rolls in this league, and it's hard. Guys are trying to take your head off, guys are trying to stick to screens, and it's your job to not get screened and to not stick to screens.”

What Hardaway does next in this play is perhaps an even better sign of his maturity.

As Barbosa prepares to drag him through another set of screens on the weak side, Hardaway notices Curry and Draymond Green, the NBA's best pick-and-roll partners, about to do their thing (albeit in a bit of role reversal). The whole thing happens completely to Hardaway's back, but he still sees it developing. Instead of chasing Barbosa and letting the Warriors pull away the last line of help defense from the heart of the play, Hardaway reverses course and sets up to help Horford at the rim.

Their combined defense stops Green and forces the Warriors to pass it back out. When Andre Iguodala misses a jump shot a few seconds later, Hardaway slips in for a rebound. All in all, it is a complete defensive effort, not made in a single play, but in a series of plays as the Warriors, a potent offensive team, probe through a series of options.

One thing that can't be seen on these clips: Hardaway shouting directions when the Hawks are on defense. 

“I normally do that, but you know, you can do it more," Hardaway said. "It’s just a spirit that you have to have about yourself when you are out there. It makes the job a lot easier while you’re on defense. It helps other guys out on the court to know where their places are, and to let them know that you have their back."

The next step

In a recent post-practice drill, Hardaway took shots from seven spots behind the three-point arc. The rule of the drill was simple: Shoot until you miss, then move onto the next spot while making as many shots as possible. With Assistant Coach Charles Lee zipping in rapid-fire passes that had Hardaway jumping back into the air right after landing, the drill was as much about conditioning as it was about marksmanship.

Hardaway started quickly, at one point making 26 of 27 shots in the early going. In total, he made 73 shots at the seven locations; in other words, he made 73 of his 80 attempts. 

"It was a good day," Hardaway would later say of his performance in the drill, "but I know I can do better." He added that the team-best score in the drill this season was Kyle Korver's 89.

As a Hawk, Hardaway has made 27.5 percent of his threes. The drill is one piece of evidence amony many that an improvement that is on the way.

Hardaway has made 24 of 26 free throws this season (92.3 percent). Another is that since missing 10 consecutive threes in early February, he has since made 7 of his past 15 attempts. 

Is it possible that his vigorous commitment to defense might require an adjustment period on the offensive end.

“Yes," Budenholzer said. "As much as you don’t want it to be or I wish it wasn’t. And that’s where I think when he continues to play defense at the level he is, it will just become something that is more of a habit. The ultimate goal is our league is to be a great two-way player. Those are the guys that you crave and you want. I think he has the athleticism where he could be a good two-way guy.  He’s on his way, I believe.”

One factor that is helping Hardaway is his chemistry with another solid two-way player: point guard Dennis Schröder. It's not an uncommon sight to see Budenholzer checking both players in at the same time, or taking them both out together. The two play well in tandem, and Schröder is clearly fond of Hardaway's rise into the rotation.

After Hardaway scored 11 points in a win over the Hornets, he was doing a post-game interview surrounded by the largest crowd of reporters he'd had this season. Mid-sentence, Schröder snuck up from a nearby locker and game him a gentle tap on the back of the head. Hardaway smiled, laughed and lost his way in whatever sentence he had started.

Where he hasn't lost his way in on the court. In fact, Hardaway is just now finding it.

Story by KL ChouinardTwitter: @KLChouinard