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  • The Michigan Boys: What Roles Will Hardaway and Burke Fill Next Season?

The Michigan Boys: What Roles Will Hardaway and Burke Fill Next Season?

Photo: TKW Illustration

Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke, despite being former college teammates, are at opposite ends of the salary spectrum—Hardaway a well-compensated, underperforming shooting guard and Burke at near-minimum contract.

Kevin Knox is a monster and Mitchell Robinson was a steal—these two thoughts have been bouncing around in the heads of most Knicks fans since the rookies exploded onto the scene at Summer League in Vegas. These hopes are expected and well-founded, but the fact remains that they are still 18 and 20 respectively and unlikely to move the needle much this season.

Whether or not the Knicks can tread water in the standings rests not with the Knox, Robinson, Allonzo Trier, or Frank Ntilikina. Veterans like Enes Kanter and Courtney Lee are sure to contribute, but if the Knicks somehow make a push for the playoffs in the awful Eastern Conference, it will likely be on the backs on the boys from Michigan—Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke.

The two guards, former college teammates, are both entering their sixth season in the league. Burke, 25, and Hardaway Jr., 26, were first round picks in the 2013 draft. Burke went ninth to the Wolves before being traded to the Jazz, with Hardaway Jr. going 24th to the Knicks.

In his first two seasons in New York, Hardaway averaged 10.9 points per game and showed glimpses of his knack for scoring. After putting up 20 or more points 19 times in in his 151 games with the team, including a then-career-high 29 in a win against Cleveland in his rookie year, Hardaway was traded to Atlanta in 2015 for the draft rights of Jerian Grant.

In his first year in Atlanta, Hardaway struggled, averaging 6.4 points per game in 51 games while spending some time in the G League. However, in his second year, he shined in Mike Budenholzer’s system.

Hardaway averaged career highs in points per game, field goal percentage, assists, and threes per game during his contract year with the Hawks. Steve Mills must have believed that this leap Hardaway made was legit, as he decided to sign Timmy to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet, one of the more expensive deals of that offseason.

Atlanta declined to match, and after his first season back in the Garden, it’s hard to say if the Knicks were right. Last year, Hardaway topped his career high by posting 17.5 points per game. However, he did so while playing more minutes, and his field goal percentage dropped by over three percent. A stress injury in his left leg also cost him 20 games from December to January.

While Hardaway was getting his first big payday from the team that had originally drafted him, his college teammate—who went 15 picks earlier than him in the draft—had lost his job backing up John Wall in Washington to Brandon Jennings. The Wizards declined Burke’s $4.1 million qualifying offer last offseason, and the one-time lottery pick was without a home. He nearly signed with the Thunder for a non-guaranteed contract but chose to join the Knicks instead and hone his craft in Westchester.

Burke signed with the Knicks for $1.6 million in October and started the season by regularly torching the G League, dropping 43 points en route to setting the single-game scoring record for the Westchester Knicks in just his second game with the team. Burke averaged 26.6 points before the Knicks waived Ramon Sessions to make room for the former Wolverine on the roster.

Burke debuted for the Knicks on Martin Luther King Day against the Nets. His playing time varied until he helped the Knicks halt an eight-game losing streak on February 22nd, when he filled up the stat sheet with 26 points and six assists against Orlando.

From then on out, Burke played fewer than 25 minutes just seven times in the final 22 games of the season. On March 26th, he became the first Knick since Stephon Marbury to have a 40-point and 10-assist game, with 42 and 12 in an overtime loss against the Hornets. Burke was finally showing some of the spark that made the Wolves draft him, although there were some less-than-inspiring games mixed in between.

After the season ended, the Knicks were left wondering—has the kid figured it out? Or is this a classic case of a player putting up stats for a team in desperate need of production? The Knicks stable of point guards included a 34-year-old Jarrett Jack, a 19-year-old and offensively-raw Frank Ntilikina, and another underachieving former lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay. That’s not an inspiring bunch.

Burke’s deal is such that only the first year was guaranteed. This is a low-risk play that allows Burke to prove himself over a full season and gives the Knicks the opportunity to see how Burke plays under new coach David Fizdale, while also maintaining flexibility should the need to clear space in the offseason of 2019 arise (which, according to the Knicks front office, it will).

The biggest signing the Knicks made this offseason was adding another lottery pick who has disappointed, Mario Hezonja, for one year and $8.6 million. There was no better place for the Knicks to spend the $784k they’ll be paying Burke for next season.

Without Kristaps Porzingis until at least the beginning of 2019, next season will likely be all about developing Frank, Knox, and Robinson while letting Fizdale get situated. Both Burke and Hardaway will have plenty of opportunities to impress, but the question is, how well can they play under Fizdale?

Fizdale is known more for his ability to form relationships with his players than he is for implementing any sort of system like Pop, Bud, or Stevens. However, Fiz has made it known he’s looking to play a position-less style of basketball. Ideally, having as many players on the floor that can dribble, pass, and score on offense, while being able to switch and guard multiple positions on defense, will be a point of emphasis.

We’ve established that both players can light it up on offense, albeit somewhat inconsistently. Having Fizdale there to discourage Burke and Hardaway from taking midrange jump shots—which the Knicks took more of than any team outside of the Timberwolves last year—while pushing for more threes and shots at the rim will hopefully help the former college teammates play more efficiently.

Hardaway scored 12.9 percent of his points from the midrange last season—up three percent from his second season with the Hawks. His percentage of points scored from three increased by a tenth of a percent, but his percentage of points in the paint dropped by 4.3 percent. It appears that Hardaway spent most of those extra minutes he was given after leaving Atlanta chucking up midrange shots—not what Fizdale would like to see.

Burke’s tendencies are even more startling, but they may also explain why he had struggled throughout his career. Last season, 36.8 percent of his scoring came from the midrange, as he ranked in the top 20 NBA players in midrange attempt per game. We saw what happened when those shots were falling—Burke was capable of dropping 40 points any night. But when they weren’t, he could single-handedly shoot the Knicks out of the game. Like Hardaway, if Fizdale can help Burke improve his shot selection, their offense could help hasten this rebuild that the Knicks have finally committed to. At their best, they could be the NBA’s version of the 2017 Yankees playing on an accelerated schedule.

But what about their defense? At 6’6” with a 6’7” wingspan and 6’1” with a 6’5” wingspan, Hardaway and Burke, respectively, have the physical tools to fit into Fizdale’s position-less lineups. Although both have possessed the necessary tools to be good defenders throughout their careers, the best defensive season either had was Hardaway’s second season in Atlanta, in which he had 2.1 defensive win shares.

That does show what a well-coached Hardaway can contribute on that end of the floor. If Fizdale can tap into the Atlanta version of THJ while also unlocking a similar version of Burke, their more efficient offense combined with decent-at-worst defense would make both real assets moving forward.

Both players will have to work on their games, but it seems like both have learned from their struggles. Last month, Hardaway opened up to Newsday about his time in the G League.

“I was second-guessing myself at the time, thinking about if I really wanted to play,” he said. “It was a dark period.”

His father, the five-time All-Star called it “a blessing in disguise.”

Team President Steve Mills said he expects Hardaway to be a leader, and if he stays in the gym—and away from Zaire Wade—there’s a good chance we see him post a season in line with his second under Bud. Likewise, Burke has been showing out at Dyckman Park and working with Nets’ third-year player Caris LeVert.

Both players are on the verge of veteran-hood. Hardaway is trying to justify his big deal and Burke is looking to rebuild his value. It still remains to be seen how they’ll fare under Fizdale, but while most fans are salivating at what Memphis’ former coach will do with the team’s young guys, it’s going to take guys like Burke and Hardaway to set the tone.

Both are likely to have big roles on the team when the season begins. Hardaway is a lock to start the season opener, and Burke is the likely favorite to start at point guard as well. They’ll likely be two of the first to show signs of improvement under Fizdale. Watch the boys from Michigan. If they start strong, Frank, Knox and Robinson will likely be close behind.

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