His first tenure with the Knicks ended on the night of the 2015 N.B.A. draft. He was with two teammates watching the event at Clyde Frazier’s Wine and Dine — the Midtown Manhattan restaurant owned by the Knicks legend Walt Frazier — when he received a call. Hardaway stepped outside to take it, only to hear Phil Jackson, the team president, and General Manager Steve Mills tell him he had been traded. They wished him the best, he recalled, and some 30 seconds later the trade was made public. He had been dealt to the Hawks for a first-round pick. Hardaway walked back into the restaurant, grabbed his belongings and went home.
The deal hurt. He spent the next few weeks processing his fate. The Knicks had taken him 24th over all in 2013 and he averaged double-digit scoring over his first two seasons. He was not a star, but he’d shown promise.
In Atlanta, he would have to start anew. Hardaway had suffered a right wrist injury late in the 2014-15 season and had not fully recovered. His summer workouts were affected, and he arrived to his new team out of shape.
Worse yet, in a preseason meeting his new coach, Mike Budenholzer, laid out the team’s plan: Use the first 25 games of the season to rebuild him.
“It was a reality check,” Hardaway said.
He played in just four games before the New Year and spent two stints in the developmental league as the Hawks set about recalibrating his mind-set. He had been a shoot-first wing, but the coaching staff sat him down and explained how he would have to play if he wanted to get on the court.
Atlanta prioritized defense and passing, but the coaching staff’s initial estimation, Hardaway wasn’t ready to give sustained effort defensively. He withered on screens. Charles Lee, an assistant coach whom Hardaway now credits for his transformation, hung close as an instructor.
The staff set out a conditioning plan, giving Hardaway a weight room regimen, benchmarks to aim for and a diet to focus on. He was tested on how well he changed direction during sprints and on his endurance during two-minute-long court-length runs. Progress was codified and recorded.
At first, Hardaway was angry to learn he’d have to sit, Lee said. He had believed he would be able to play immediately, that his time with the Knicks had proved his legitimacy.
It was a struggle for a player who had known straightline success over his career. Hardaway Jr. is the son of Tim Hardaway Sr., a 14-year N.B.A. veteran who has been a Hall of Fame finalist multiple times. Hardaway Sr. would take his son to his practices and pickup games when he was just six months old, parking his stroller next to the court and letting him watch as Hardaway Sr. ran point for the Run-TMC Warriors or during summer games in Chicago. The younger Hardaway had started all 107 games he played in college at Michigan and averaged 10.2 points as a rookie with the Knicks.
His difficulties in Atlanta were new. Hardaway considers the meeting in Budenholzer’s office to be the lowest point of his career.
It was exacerbated by Hardaway’s own high expectations. When he dropped his head after a mistake on the court, his father knew it had latched onto his psyche.
“Sometimes he’s so hard on himself that it tears him down. But he shouldn’t be. Things happen,” Hardaway’s father said, adding: “He understands that now.”
Hardaway slowly eased himself into the Hawks’ good graces. While his playing time was still meager compared with his time with the Knicks, he gained more responsibility. His father noticed that he stopped dropping his head after errors. His defense improved — he ranked 42nd of 77 shooting guards in defensive real plus-minus in his first year in Atlanta, after finishing fourth-worst in the statistic in his final year with the Knicks.
“I was 23 when I got traded,” Hardaway said. “I’m still young and I could still change my game. I’m still learning.”
Atlanta had asked Hardaway to strip away his natural instincts and retrofit his game, and there were signs their demands had been met as he began to flourish.
By the end of last season, he had become one of Atlanta’s vital cogs. He started in the playoffs and in 24 of their last 35 games, averaging about 18 points per game.
Lee, the Hawks’ assistant coach, felt Hardaway would be able to maintain his game outside of Atlanta’s system, that he would leave the organization better than he had arrived. Lee had hoped the Hawks could re-sign him, but that became untenable when the Knicks swooped in with their outsize offer.
Hardaway said his friends joked that Jackson’s departure as team in June meant a return to New York was possible, but he dismissed them.
But on July 1, as Hardaway sat in his Miami home as a restricted free agent, Mills called to express his interest. Six days later, they reached an agreement.
The size of the contract caught most of the N.B.A. off guard. Even Hardaway’s father heard the rumblings that the Knicks paid too much. His son will earn more over the life of the deal than he made during his 14-year career.
“I tell people, don’t look at the money,” the elder Hardaway, now a Detroit Pistons assistant coach, said. “Look at a guy that’s going to come in, that’s going to help your team out and that’s going to try to get you into the playoffs. Give the kid a chance.
“Everybody talks about he’s making more money than me. He should. He should make more money than me. This is where the N.B.A. is today.”
Though the Knicks have struggled lately, falling from their early-season highs, Hardaway remains a positive note. His contract is no longer a topic of discussion, nor as far-fetched as it once seemed. The franchise built around Porzingis knows it has even more magic at his wing.