Michigan basketball forward Tim Hardaway Jr. continues to improve
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
COLUMBUS, Ohio — John Beilein examined Ohio State’s defense and made the call. Tim Hardaway Jr. answered with what might be the individual Michigan basketball highlight of the season.
Hardaway Jr., a freshman forward from Miami, took the ball on the right side of the floor, drove to the hoop and finished with a one-handed reverse dunk that in one moment displayed his current role with Michigan and his future potential in one play.
“That was a called play,” Hardaway Jr. said. “So Coach just realized that they were just keying us up on the wing.
“So he told me to just go backdoor, and it ended up working.”
The play was the most athletic made Thursday night by a player on either team — impressive considering Ohio State is ranked No. 1 in the country.
Then Hardaway Jr. did it again late in the first half when he caught the ball, split defenders on the baseline and converted a layup to give Michigan a 26-23 lead going into halftime.
It was reminiscent of a move an NBA player would make.
“He’s a very explosive player,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “He can score points in bunches. His 3-point shooting has really evolved.
“And he can drive it.”
Hardaway Jr. is starting to display a balance between driving and shooting, merely another part of the development of the freshman’s game from a rookie who settled too often for jump shots and contested 3-pointers in November and December to a more complete player in February.
Hardaway Jr. has scored in double figures in eight of his last nine games. He is second on Michigan in scoring at 11.9 points a game. He’s also third in rebounding (3.9 a game) and third in assists (33).
He’s led Michigan (13-10, 3-7 Big Ten) in scoring three of the past four games, including 15 points against Ohio State in a 62-53 loss.
On Sunday, Hardaway and Michigan play at Penn State (12-9, 5-5) at noon (Big Ten Network). It’s a chance for him to show how far he’s come in the last month, as he was limited to two points, one rebound and three assists when the Wolverines beat Penn State, 76-69, on Jan. 2.
Part of Hardaway Jr.’s recent improvement comes from recognizing what shots work for him — something Beilein drilled home to him in the past month. The other is he finally feels comfortable in the college game.
“We’re trying to slowly get him more involved with the ball in his hands,” Beilein said. “We’d like him to dribble it and penetrate more.”
That Hardaway Jr. — the one Beilein is now looking for more consistently — is more of what Michigan saw in its pre-Europe practices and also during its preseason foreign tour: a confident player who had speed and athleticism to take on most defenders as well as explosiveness to score in bunches.
“It is what we were expecting,” Morris said. “He is just growing every day, adding new things to his game little by little. Not just spotting up in the corner shooting three’s.
“It’s always tough for a freshman. People put a lot of high expectations on freshmen coming in, but he’ll get there. He’s just getting it right now. The future is unlimited for him.”
Morris would know. He was in a similar position to Hardaway Jr. a year ago, a rookie thrust into the starting lineup at the beginning of the season and expected to contribute major minutes.
Morris struggled. He had flashes of brilliance and then games where he disappeared. Hardaway Jr. has been more consistent but also fought through that at the beginning of the season.
Now, Morris is one of the best players in the Big Ten after a summer of working out.
“I thought (I’d be able to improve like this) but it’s just part of the game, game flow,” Hardaway Jr. said. “Teammates just finding me and me being in the right spot at the right time.”