Friday, July 20, 2012

Way Too Early Basketball Expectations-o-Meter: Tim Hardaway Jr.

I've been following NBA free agency, not with glee or any sort of excitement or optimism, but complete despair. Nay, I am a Bulls fan, a fan of a team team run by a guy gunning for the coveted Fiscal Responsibility Championship as opposed to an actual title that is real and has meaning. The Bulls have almost completely depleted their bench, losing Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, John Lucas III, CJ Watson, and probably Omer Asik. The Bulls will also not bring back Brian Scalabrine, which is a crime almost as grave as Twitter hashtags sullying the Big House's artificial turf. Thus far, the Bulls have replaced the departing "Bench Mob"with Kirk Kinrich (which, as far as FA signings go, is basically like making a sequel of something instead of being creative and coming up with something original), Vladimir Radmonivic, and, it sounds like, Dark Milicic. With Derrick Rose rehabbing from the knee injury sustained during the playoffs and Luol Deng's wrist issues, the Bulls' situation for 2012-13 looks pretty bleak. Hello, lottery. Needless to say, this is not a basketball program to be excited about right now.

This is all a forced segue into something I am, in contrast, very excited about: that something is the 2012-13 University of Michigan basketball squadron. Unlike the Bulls, Beilein's Wolverines should be fairly deep and would seem to have few, if any, glaring weaknesses. They're experienced, talented, and eager to avenge what was a bitter end to the 2011-12 season.

It's been a while since the loss to Ohio (Ohio Ohio), so I've long ago come to terms with it and stopped losing sleep over Beilein deciding to allow Michigan to run the Kobe offense with Trey near the end of that game. It was not fun, but it's over. It was a sour final salvo to what was otherwise an awesome season. Insert your preferred verbiage here about the randomness of a single-elimination format and how it's all going to be okay because it's completely not even about wins or championships, you guys: it's about the game, having fun, and cracking joke about GRIT and TOUGHNESS. Everything else is just gravy.

In light of the stark dichotomy between my expectations vis-a-vis my respective basketball teams, I decided to take a look at what my expectations are for John Beilein's 6th Wolverine team. There's not much going on right now in this dead summer month before fall camp, and literally anything is better than talking about the NCAA's role in the PSU scandal, how the people in charge of college football are big dummies, and how there might not be anymore professional hockey played in 2012.

Since we are still about 7 weeks away from football and fall camp hasn't started yet, this is a good time to run briefly outline some expectations, player by player, for this 2012-13 basketball team. If I end up being right about any of these things, I'm going to turn into Phil Steele and just refer to my JAM-PACKED WITH FACTS correctness when I do these previews before next season.

Today, we'll start with the talented enigma that is THJ.

Career to Date
I'm going to reach back into my cultural worldview here, all the way to the fuzzy time known as "4th grade." Oh yes, I am in fact talking about Pok√©mon. If Hardaway's freshman season was analogous to Charmander (fire-breathing, a ferocity belying his youth/inexperience), his sophomore season was, naturally, very Charmeleon-esque: an awkward adolescent phase. Now, as we all remember, Charmeleon evolved into Charizard, who was pretty great. If THJ takes the proverbial next step in 2012, we're talking about a Charizardian winger, breathing fire all over the place and inspiring envy in fans of teams who do not have a Charizard card Tim Hardaway Jr. 

Last Year
Again, last year was sort of rough for THJ, one that led to a lot of recalibration when it comes to assessing THJ's abilities and/or future as a Michigan basketball player. Was his torrid freshman 3-point shooting (36.7%) a sort of extended fluke? Well, after shooting 28% last year, you would certainly not be wrong to think along those lines.

Otherwise, THJ's overall FG% remained roughly the same (42%). He averaged 14.6 ppg after dropping 13.9 ppg in 2010-11. He turned the ball over quite a bit more last season (66 turnovers last season vs. 45 during his freshman season). In addition to 3-point shooting, it became painfully obvious that his handles were not quite as crisp or world-destroying as we might have imagined them to be when he was still a freshman and we hadn't had enough time to objectively consider his abilities.

He got to the line more last season (4.4 FTA per game, averaging exactly 1 more attempt per than '10-'11), which was partly--well, mostly--a product of him simply having to create more with Darius Morris wearing purple and gold instead of maize and blue. For all of his abilities, Trey wasn't the facilitator that Morris was, but I'll address that when I get to it.

Things That Were Good 

Well, last season wasn't all bad, obviously. THJ flashed some of that freshman year Kobe-esque gunnery (the good kind, not the I'm going to take a million shots no matter what kind) here and there, although admittedly not as often as one would've liked. After non-conference play had ended, THJ was shooting 33% from 3; not exactly transcendent, but not completely terrible.

Then the wheels fell off during conference play. He went: 1/7 against PSU at home, 0/7 @IU, 0/8 @Iowa, 2/7 @OSU, 2/8 against IU at home, 0/6 @Nebraska, 2/9 @Northwestern...and so on. You get the picture. I realize that I'm not actually talking about good things, which is what this section is supposed to be for.

After Michigan took a weird thumping at home at the hands of a hungry Purdue team (Michigan's only loss at Crisler all year), the Wolverines traveled to Champaign to take on a desperate but dysfunctional Illini team. THJ went out and had the biggest game of his season, dropping 25 points and 11 boards. He was about as efficient as you could possibly be, going 6/7 from the field and a perfect 4/4 from beyond the arc. Additionally, he was a frequent visitor to the charity stripe, where he went 9/10. This is the game you point to from last season to say "why don't you do that all the time?" Of course, it's not that easy (plus, Illinois was sort of terrible).

Things That Were Bad
Well, I already said most of them in the last section, but...THJ had, shall we say, a deep-seated enthusiasm for the bad 3. Early shot clock, heat check, you name it. And, you know, I get it. As a gunner, it's frustrating to keep shooting, to have people tell you to keep shooting, and to know that you can hit from 3 because you did the year before, only to just keep missing and end up with a sub-30% mark on the season.

Other than that, THJ had trouble handling the ball at times. He had a tough time breaking his defenders down on the wing, and seemed to do much better off the ball when making slice cuts to the middle or attacking in transition, which Michigan did not find itself doing all that much as one of the slower teams in the league. Commentators keep joking about how "Daddy could never do that" whenever THJ flashes a bit of athleticism, but if there's one that that Dad has on him, it's a nasty, ankle-incinerating crossover.

 Last but not least, I fully believe that TJ could be a defensive stopper if he wanted to. There were numerous times when his effort didn't seem to be there, or he was simply being lazy with his footwork and focus. One example of a defensive gaffe that comes to mind came at the end of the first Northwestern game, when THJ fouled Alex Marcotullio beyond the 3-point line with Michigan up 3 and the clock just about to run out. Luckily, Marcotullio clanked the first of three attempts, but that sort of mistake just can't happen and is emblematic of THJ's occasional lack of defensive focus.

If THJ Was A Literary Figure. Franz Kafka. Often works in short, streaky bursts of fevered, prolific brilliance. Wildly divergent performance often makes one ask existentialist questions like "why am I a bug?" or "why am I shooting 9 percentage points worse from 3 this year?" Earlier work (The Metamorphosis, second half of the 2010-11 conference slate) is more widely known and praised than later material (The Trial, The Castle, 2011-12 season). His work makes you go both AHHHHH and AHHHHH, one in a good way and one in a very bad, frightening way.

Things That Would Be Prettyyyy Prettyyyy Prettyyyy Good

  • Be more efficient. THJ was 31st in the conference in eFG%, putting him in between two Hoosiers in the rankings (Oladipo and Watford). As a junior, you'd think that a hopefully more well-informed shot selection is in the cards. Either way, if Tim's going to be the First Team All-Big Ten that many think he can be, he needs to value the ball a little more. 
  • Less turnovers. His turnover percentage is not that awful when you look at it (14.5%), I guess, but it still seemed like THJ carrying the ball into the lane was just about a 50-50 proposition as to whether or not he'd turn it over or draw a foul. We know that Tim (and the rest of the team) has been working hard this offseason, so we can only hope that the offseason competitions and ball-handling drills will have an obvious effect come November. 
  • D up. Not much to expand upon here, but I'd like to see THJ bring it a little more consistently on D. He's still arguably Michigan's best athlete (GRIII sounds like his biggest competition in that department), and he has the ability to stick to the conference's best wingers if he wants to. For a guy that can jump like Tim can, it would be nice to see him hit the boards a little harder (he averaged 3.9 per game last year). I think he could make serious hay on the offensive glass; I wonder if Beilein decides to put a greater emphasis on the offensive boards now that Michigan has some depth in the front court? With the added size on the roster, Michigan doesn't need his rebounding as much, but I think he should be able to pick up a few more double doubles this season after notching two of them in 2011-12. 

I think that Tim's offensive output only improves a little bit, but not because he hasn't gotten any better. Michigan simply has more options in the front court, Stauskas and Vogrich will be taking their fair share of triples, and Burke will still be around being all high usage-y and awesome. Tim will also be a little more efficient than he has been, I think. THJ put up just under 15 a game last season, and most people would probably say that his sophomore year was a bit of a disappointment. If anything, that speaks to the somewhat unrealistic expectations that THJ's freshman year created.

As far as post-season recognition goes, I think that THJ is easily Second Team All- Big Ten with only minimal improvement. Otherwise, if he improves as I imagine he will, he will be First Team All-Big Ten this season and the undisputed top shooting guard in the conference (after having moved back from the 3, where he spent most of last season).


  1. Fouad, your lyricism sets you apart from other sportsbloggers.

  2. Thanks, much appreciated! Happy to know that my lyricism game is strong.