Not unlike the passenger in Airplane who happens upon a pamphlet of “Famous Jewish Sports Legends,” the silver linings of this cesspool of a 2013-2014 Knicks season make for some light reading.
Among them: Carmelo Anthony’s 62-point game, Amar’e Stoudemire’s relatively healthy and very productive offensive season, and the emergence of Tim Hardaway Jr.
Hardaway, a late first round pick, has quickly become a dynamic scorer. His remarkable athleticism and body control have allowed him to attack off the dribble and convert two-thirds of his shots at the rim. He is already an excellent shooter — 38 percent from three-point range this year. And despite developing a reputation for his Earl-like, never-met-a-shot-he-doesn’t-like tendency, THJR is a good example of the modern-day efficient NBA player — 75 percent of his shots either come from 3 or at the rim.
As the front office is just beginning to find out, rookies often improve, and good news-deprived Knicks fans have been daydreaming all season about how the cost-controlled, 22-year old will develop. So, using some statistical parameters, I decided to see if we could find a range of similar players to Hardaway to see how he might develop.
To try to find a list of comparable players — for sabermetrically-inclined baseball fans, this post is inspired by similar exercises at FanGraphs — I used the excellent Basketball-Reference.com Player Season Finder tool. I set the statistical criteria thusly:
Year range: 1979-1980 season-present (3-point era)
Position: Guards, Guards-Forwards and Forwards-Guards
Only rookie seasons included
True-shooting percentage: 53% or better
Usage rate: 17% or higher
Assist percentage: 20% or lower
Minutes played: 1000 or more
To explain the stat criteria quickly, I was looking to find players in rookie seasons that I had put up similar stats to Hardaway this year. They had to be good and efficient scorers (high TS%). They had to have a similarly active level of involvement in the offense (USG%). They had to have low assist numbers like Hardaway (AST%, which was also a convenient way to get rid of most point guards, who aren’t good matches for him). And they had to have played a statistically significant number of minutes.
Here is the chart. 49 players in their rookie seasons matched the criteria.
Among them, Hardaway ranks 27th in Win Shares/48, meaning he is pretty solidly in the middle of the pack of this group. He ranks 36th in terms of PER, but that’s a statistic that likely underrates Hardaway because of his low rebounding rate.
The first thing that jumps out is that, while this group is mixed … it’s pretty darn good. If nothing else, it shows that Hardaway has had a nice year and could develop into a solid rotation player or more. Even the mid-tier guys in this group include players like Eddie Jones, DeMar DeRozen, Leandro Barbosa, Latrell Sprewell, and others. Sure, there are some marginal and poor players that serve as a reminder that THJR is not guaranteed a long, productive career. But in general, some real talent emerged from this group.
The second thing that jumps out is how one-dimensional THJR is right now — he is a scorer and not much else. Hardaway ranks bottom-five in the group in Defensive Win Share rate, a finding that fits the eye test of a player that badly struggles with basic rotations. He is fourth-to-last in assist rate (5.7). He is tied for last in rebounding rate (3.9%). Before cutting him some slack and saying he is a rookie guard, remember that this entire sample is made up of rookie guards. For him to reach the potential of many of these players, he will need to develop these secondary skills.
I’d recommend taking a look and seeing which comps you think make the most sense, but I thought I would include a few that stood out to me. Pushing past the outliers like Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Chris Mullin, Reggie Miller, and Mitch Richmond (BUT HOW FUN IS THAT LIST?!), let’s have a look at some players who seem particularly close to THJR.
1. Cautionary Tales
There isn’t necessarily a great match in this group, which is a good sign. But it is a reminder that improvement rates aren’t necessarily linear — certain players peak early and at different times (the guy with Landry Fields’s Knicks jersey nods his head sadly) and a good rookie season doesn’t necessarily imply an upwards-trending career.
Examples: Marquis Daniels (20.1 PER in his rookie year!), Salim Stoudamire, Rashad McCants (not a great example since he derived most his value on defense, but still), Jerry Eaves, Eric Piatwowski (not nearly the athlete THJR is), Anthony Morrow.
2. A Fellow Young Gunner
I’m seeing a lot of Klay Thompson here. Thompson has the slight edge in PER, Hardaway the upper hand in WS/48. Neither guy defends or rebounds much. Both are excellent shooters, both from the line and from three, and shoot a fairly high volume from three (Thompson less than Hardaway, but I wouldn’t count out how just two years have had a remarkable impact on NBA offenses prioritizing the 3-point shot during that time). Thompson has a much higher assist rate, but Hardaway is more athletic and gets value by attacking the rim. I personally think Thompson is overrated — a defensive liability and a very good shooter off the catch who accordingly derives a lot of value playing off the greatest shooter in the world, Steph Curry. But he is still a good player (and himself still developing), and I think provides a good parallel for a possible path for Hardaway.
3. Intriguing parallels
— Cuttino Mobley. A very good statistical parallel. Very good shooter, solid rotation player, similar per-36 numbers.
— Leandro Barbosa. Similar penchant for attacking the rim, better passer, not as powerful.
— Anthony Peeler. Streaky shooter, inconsistent from year-to-year.
— Eric Gordon. A more talented player than THJR at the outset of his career, but has really struggled with injuries (and maybe not the best attitude). Excellent offensive player, scorer at will, poor defender.
4. Optimistic, But Reasonable
And here, I think, is for whom reasonable Knicks fans should be rooting: Michael Finley.
When Knicks fans bemoan Hardaway for being a one-dimensional scorer, what they really want is for him to be more like Finley. While not an elite defender, Finley was very solid on the perimeter and not a defensive liability (for those seeing an Eddie Jones/THJR parallel, I thought about it, but Jones was an exceptional defender with incredibly long arms. I don’t think THJR could close such a large gap on defense). Finley became a very good shooter and served as the 2nd-4th offensive options, depending on his team, due to his shooting and attacking abilities. He was a great passer with excellent court vision.
Finley was never a superstar, but he was a 2-time All-Star, an NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, and a crucially important starter on some very good Dallas Mavericks and Spurs teams. He played 15 seasons in the league.
When Knicks fans see Hardaway, they are really hoping he can be like Finley — a two-way player who derives most of his value on offense, a guy who can be a starter and scorer on playoff teams and maybe snag an All-Star appearance or two if we’re being greedy, a very skilled offensive player, and a competitor who will work to improve on court vision and defense.