Hawks' Tim Hardaway Jr. reaps benefits of offseason work

It’s a brilliant Saturday afternoon in Manhattan, the kind of day that makes you appreciate the fall. The air is cool, the sun is shining, and there’s even a street festival out on Sixth Avenue.

As the clock ticks past noon, the Atlanta Hawks are wrapping up practice on a court at the offices of the National Basketball Player’s Association. The rest of the day is theirs, and NYC awaits.

And while Hawks forward Tim Hardaway Jr. has said he’s finished with his shooting drills and is willing to sit and chat, he can’t stop shooting. Truth be told, he’s actually engaged in something of a vicious cycle: Hardaway keeps sinking 3-pointers from the wing. Because he keeps making shots, he keeps shooting. Because he isn’t missing, he doesn’t want to stop shooting.

It’s a good problem for the 6-foot-6 swingman to have, and the rest of the world can wait for a moment and let Hardaway enjoy the way things are going thus far this season.

In his fourth NBA campaign, the 24-year-old Hardaway is having a career year, averaging 12.3 points in 21.5 minutes to emerge as an integral part of the Hawks’ rotation. He’s making nearly half of the shots he attempts (in games, at least), shooting 49.6 percent from the field, and playing the best defense of his career.

“A lot of things have just come together in a good way,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer summed up.

The Tim Hardaway Jr. we’ve seen this season is the type of player the Hawks hoped he would develop into when they gave up a first-round pick to acquire Hardaway from the Knicks during the 2015 NBA Draft. While Hardaway had played plenty in his first two seasons with New York, averaging 10.8 points in 151 games, the Hawks wanted Hardaway to channel his energy in a different direction.

“Having that defensive mindset—going in there and playing hard each and every possession, not giving up play—it really helps me a lot.”

Tim Hardaway Jr.

Upon arriving in Atlanta, Hardaway immediately received something of an awakening. As Hardaway recalled, “My first meeting with (Budenholzer), he said, ‘You have to be in shape to play defense, Tim, if you want to be an elite player.'”

To that end, Budenholzer told Hardaway the Hawks wanted to send him down to the D-League to have a chance to work on his defensive effort.

“At the end of the day if you want to be on the court with a good team and play at a high level,” Budenholzer said, “commitment to defense is just mandatory.”

After spending two seasons in the NBA, being told he needed to go to the D-League made Hardaway, the son of the five-time All-Star point guard, re-examine the arc of his career.

“It was tough,” Hardaway said. “It made me feel like a rookie again. It made me realize the position I’m in, and made me realize, ‘Hey you gotta work. Nothing is given to you, everything is earned.’ It hurt a lot when he told me I wasn’t playing for the first 20-something games. But it fueled me to become a better person, to become more mature and a better player.”

Budenholzer said the Hawks were heartened by Hardaway’s response.

“There’s no hesitation as far as how much we believe in the D-League, and how much we believe you gotta get those game reps and game opportunities,” he said. “But a player that’s had some success, he has his pride. It would be great if we could change the stigma of it, but it is what it is. He took it well, and he went down there and busted his ass. I think we’ve had a good honest dialogue with each other and the assistants. He knows what we want, and he’s like, ‘This is what it takes. OK, I’ll do it.'”

By the end of last season, with the Hawks fighting for a spot among the Eastern Conference elite, Hardaway had cracked the Hawks’ rotation, providing wing depth as the Hawks advanced to the second round of the playoffs. But it was this summer that Hardaway’s game really took flight. Taking Budenholzer’s fitness challenge to heart, Hardaway stayed in Atlanta over the summer and, working with the Hawks’ training staff, dedicated himself to getting into the best shape of his life.

“I started going to sleep earlier, around 9 p.m.,” Hardaway said. “Waking up early, getting a good night’s rest, staying on top of food and eating healthy now instead of waiting until you’re 27, 28 and realizing you have to eat healthier. When you’re young you get away with a lot of stuff. I cut out, like, fried foods, steak. Mainly I eat a lot of seafood, a lot more veggies, a more strict diet. And just always drinking water — no lemonade, cranberry juice, orange juice, I had to cut all that out. The majority is just water, all day every day.”

Hardaway found a workout partner in Hawks reserve big man Mike Muscala, another three-year veteran looking to take his career to another level. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, Muscala has also seen his stats jump this season.)

“(Muscala) and myself was in the gym every single day,” Hardaway said. “We would try and see who could get to the gym first. He would beat me to the track one day, I’d beat him another day. We’d run track at 7:30 a.m., get into the gym at 9:00, then work out there for like 2, 3 hours. It was just a complete grind. I was happy that I had someone to do it with because it wasn’t easy at all.”

As part of what Budenholzer calls “an amazing summer of work,” Hardaway continued to refine his game.

“I’m really letting the game come to me,” Hardaway said. “Defense, definitely, being a key factor in my development. Getting stops on the defensive end helps me get going on offense, whether it’s getting fastbreak layups or rebounds or pushing it in pick-and-roll situations. Having that defensive mindset — going in there and playing hard each and every possession, not giving up play — it really helps me a lot.”

Throughout his first few seasons, Hardaway always had the ability to create for himself on offense. While the Hawks generally generate scoring openings via off-ball cuts and player movement, Hardaway’s now-sparing use of his one-on-one ability makes it more dangerous when unleashed.

“I pick and choose my spots wisely,” he said. “I’m not trying to be too aggressive, because I know everybody on this team can score 20 on any given night. At the end of the day I think our team is among the NBA leaders in assists, and that shows we are moving the ball and we are getting great looks.”

With the Hawks off to a 9-4 start and Hardaway a major key to their success, it’s clear that the 2015 Draft night deal with the Knicks has worked out to Atlanta’s continuing advantage.

“Tim’s got a great package of athleticism and skill and shooting ability,” said Budenholzer. “I think now he’s more comfortable and understands what we’re doing better. He’s a hell of a player.”

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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