The biggest reason why the Knicks’ signing of Tim Hardaway Jr. works is because of who he is and where the franchise is.
The Knicks are looking to get younger, tougher on defense and more athletic. Hardaway, a 25-year-old shooting guard that plays both ends of the floor, checks all of those boxes.
And here’s the most important box: Hardaway Jr. is a Culture Setter.
He has been DNA hard-wired to believe in hard work, perseverance and teamwork, lessons his father Tim Hardaway Sr., a five-time All-Star, drilled into his son.
Starting with working with a martial arts expert in high school to improve his athleticism, to helping restore Michigan basketball to prominence, to learning from a demotion to the D-League in his third season, Hardaway Jr. has developed into a talented player with a leader’s persona.
The Knicks need that kind of presence. They need a player that can take some of the heat off of Carmelo Anthony, who last season got worn down by the nightly barrage of questions about the state of the Knicks and his future with the franchise.
Should Anthony and the Knicks decide to part ways, Hardaway Jr. will help prevent the burden of being the voice of team from falling squarely on the shoulders of 21-year-old Kristaps Porzingis.
“As a versatile wing whose game continues to improve, he will fit right into the core of players that make up a roster emphasizing youth, athleticism, accountability and unselfishness.”
The Knicks chose Hardaway Jr. with the 24th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. On the night of the 2015 NBA Draft he was traded to Atlanta for the rights to point guard Jerian Grant. By December of that year, the Hawks had demoted Hardaway Jr. to the D-League.
That was the defining moment in his maturation as an NBA player.
“I started going to sleep earlier, around 9 p.m.,” Hardaway told reporters in Atlanta. “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.”
By the end of the 2016-17 season, the Hawks were planning on starting Hardaway at small forward/shooting guard next season. He is coming off his best season as a pro, averaging career highs in scoring (14.5 points per game) and shooting (45.5-percent).
“Tim’s got a great package of athleticism and skill and shooting ability,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said after the season. “I think now he’s more comfortable and understands what we’re doing better. He’s a hell of a player.”
And a hell of a leader.
When Hardaway Jr. got to Michigan in 2010, the Wolverines had made just five NCAA Tournament appearances since the Fab Five lost in the 1993 championship game. He had just three scholarship offers – Michigan, Minnesota and Kansas State.
“I had a chip on my shoulder,’’ Hardaway Jr. said.
By the time he was a junior, Michigan was back in the 2013 NCAA title game, where the Wolverines lost to Louisville. Hardaway scored 12 points, grabbed five rebounds and had four assists.
“There’s a lot of players with (good) DNA that may not have that same drive,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Tim’s got it. He’s grown up with great focus, (knowing) what it takes to achieve. Tim likes to work hard so that he can achieve success and not be given success.”
Hardaway Jr. declared for the draft and once again didn’t get a lot of hype.
“My mindset was to have that chip on my shoulder,’’ Hardaway Jr. said again, “and just prove people wrong.’’
Hardaway had his ups and downs in his first three seasons. He was disappointed when the Knicks traded him in 2015 and even more disappointed when Atlanta demoted him.
But Hardaway Jr. kept working, kept pressing and by the end this season he was a player the Hawks were looking to build around.
“Atlanta brought me here, and it really felt like I was starting all over as a rookie when I got here,” Hardaway Jr. said after the season. “They made me go through some tough times. They made me mature as a person on and off the court. And made me appreciate the game a whole lot more when I first came in the league.’’
That’s the Tim Hardaway Jr. the Knicks are getting a second time around.
They are getting a talented player on the cusp of realizing his full potential. And they are getting a pro who can help the Knicks’ young players and help develop a team culture.