Technically a teenager, Tim Hardaway Jr. ready to become the man at Michigan
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
ROSEMONT, Ill. — Tim Hardaway Jr. hardly plays basketball like a teenager.
Just 19-years-old, the Michigan sophomore wing put up very man-like 13.9 points per game as a freshman. And if Ohio State's Jared Sullinger played anywhere else, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award would likely be on his mantel.
Though he performed well beyond his birth certificate, he did so in a supporting role, playing Robin to Darius Morris' Batman.
This time around, things are different. The secret's out on his game, and Hardaway's a marked man.
So how will he handle it?
"We had an early answer on that the other day," Michigan coach John Beilein said Thursday during the Big Ten's basketball media day. "We just had a scrimmage the other day where he had seven assists and no turnovers."
Just when you thought he had it all, Hardaway has gone out and one-upped himself.
The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard entered this season knowing full well he'd have to be Michigan's go-to scorer, a role he admittedly has no issue with.
But rather than focus solely on scoring touch, Hardaway spent his off-season adding other tools.He spent a portion of the summer in Europe playing with Team USA in the FIBA U19 World Championships. And during his international experience, he started noticing a trend on the court.
No one was doing the little things.
"One of the things I saw was that a lot of people weren't getting the ball," Hardaway said. "I would come into the game and see that. I'd come into the game and try to do all the little things: rebound, push the ball forward, knock down shots, it helped me (become a more complete player)."
Hardaway said the majority of his individual work this summer was spent on ballhandling, getting himself into the lane more and doing anything he could to add components to his game.
After the off-season ended, he entered fall practice with a better understanding of Michigan's offensive system, something he says will allow him to do what he does best.
Play ball, and forget the rest.
"I don't want to be a robot out there," he said. "I just want to go out there and try to make plays for other people, not just myself."
The Wolverines' biggest hole this season is at point guard, and the main storyline recently has centered around who can fill Morris' shoes at the point.
Who's going to find open players on the perimeter? Who's going to feed Jordan Morgan in the paint? Who's going to get into the lane and start the offense?
So far, one answer to all of the above has been Hardaway.
"We don't need one guy to come in and replace Darius," senior guard Stu Douglass said. "Last year, I can't imagine being in that spot as a freshman, being relied on to score all the time. And that was his role. He had the ability to get his shot off whenever he wanted and that was his first thought.
"But now teams will focus more on Tim with Darius gone, and he knows that."
Without a doubt, Hardaway has the ability to take the pressure off Michigan's ball distributors, notably freshman point guard Trey Burke.
But there's also a bit of a problem with that.
Because every time he gives the ball up, he's possibly losing an opportunity to score.
And make no mistake, Hardaway's main job on this team is to put the ball in the basket. Not bring the ball up the floor and start the offense.
"That's what we have to work at," Beilein said. "When he needs to be more assertive and when he needs to share the ball when defenses are collapsing on him.
"I think he had a similar situation in high school, where he was such a marked man. So he's been through it before, but not with this type of defense."
Hardaway says he’s aware of his role on the team, but he’s also conscious of how that role can open doors for others.
He needs to strike a balance somewhere in the middle, and it’s a challenge he’s looking forward to.
“You always want to look for your own shot, if you're open, shoot it,” Hardaway says confidently. “(But) I (also) want to get into the lane, find guys on the perimeter, find big men for drop down passes and open dunks. It's great to be able to do that.
“It doesn't hurt to have another guy that can come out there and read the court and be a visual basketball player."
Big things are expected of Hardaway this season. And though he didn’t end up on the Preseason All-Big Ten team, most will be surprised if he doesn’t finish the season with some type of considerable individual recognition.
But are the Wolverines at all concerned about putting their offensive success in the hands of a teenager?
“We've all known his ability,” Douglass said. “He's shown he can pass and find people. We didn't have to try to bring it out of him. We knew with his maturity, he'd come along fine.
“Tim's his own hardest critic, Tim is his own worst enemy.”
His teen years won’t be over until March. But Michigan needs him to be a man, strike that, the man, right now.
Can he handle it? Time will tell.
Is he ready to try?
Bet your life on it.
“You just have to have the heart and mentality to go out there and know that you’re a leader on this team,” he said. “And then you have to show it to everybody.”