Knicks SG Tim Hardaway Jr. has been through a rebuilding process since he left New York, and now he returns with high expectations.
The Knicks awarded Hardaway a hefty four-year, $71 million contract. With that deal, Hardaway Jr. is expected to produce on a nightly basis as he reunites with the team that drafted him back in 2013. To get to this point, though, Hardaway Jr. had to rebuild his game, and it started when he was traded to the Hawks in 2015.
"I wanted to stay," Hardaway told Newsday's Al Iannazzone. "I wanted to improve in the offseason. I wanted to come back a better, stronger, faster player for the Knicks that next season. Just didn't happen. It was a blessing just being able to hae a team out there that wanted me and knew they could develop me into a player they wanted me to become and I wanted to become."
That is what happened when Hardaway went to the Hawks. They developed his game, but not how he expected it. He averaged double digits in points in his first two years with the Knicks, but found himself eventually reaching the D-League in his first season with the Hawks.
"It was definitely a wake-up call," Hardaway said. "It was them getting my mindset, 'Look, you're coming from a different offense, a different defensive background with the Knicks. This is what we want you to do.' I just wasn't picking it up as quickly as usual.
When Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer sent Hardaway down, he gave the Michigan product a piece of advice that helped him get through the tough time in his career.
"One thing (Budenholzer) did tell me, 'In order to be a prolific basketball player you got to be able to play both ends of the floor at a high level," he said. "That's the only way you're going to be able to get on the floor.' That's what helped me. I took that to heart. I wanted to make it a challenge. When he sent me down to the D-League it was a wake-up call."
Hardaway admitted his time in the D-League made him realize he had to work harder if he wanted to see the NBA hardwood. He did return better than ever in 2016 when he posted a career-high in points with 14.5 per game as well as rebounds (2.4) and assists (2.3).
It was all the Knicks needed to place a big bet on him. Hardaway said it surprised him that his former team wanted him back.
"I was surprised but at the same time I was also ecstatic because I had unfinished business, I felt like," Hardaway said. "I just left with a bad taste. I got traded and left with a bad taste in my mouth. I just wanted to correct that and leave on my own terms."
For a former D-Leaguer to get that big of a contract, Hardaway heard many skeptics saying it was a bad deal. All he wants to do is back it up.
"Everybody gets upset (about it) but it's not my fault," he said. "All I can do is back it up. I'm pretty sure this preseason I've been doing so. Whether it was a small contract or a big contract, I'm happy I'm able to play with this team, able to play with the New York Knicks and I'm happy to be back home."
With the Knicks heading to Oklahoma City to take on a former teammate in Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder, it will be Hardaway's first step to proving the naysayers wrong. Being right next to Melo in his time with the Knicks, he learned a lot about being a key component of a team which is why he's ready to take on more responsibility.
"My locker was next to Melo every single day my first two years here," Hardaway said. "Just hearing the questions that were given to him, I understand what's at stake. I'm ready. I know Kristaps (Porzingis) and myself are ready for those questions and those concerns and what we need to do as a team to get better. As a team, I know we're going to go out there and compete. That's all we ask."