Young players are glass half-full or half-empty propositions, and evaluating them can never be wholly objective; even the most even-keeled have their own vision of how a player can develop. The best prospects make it obvious–it’s easy to be objective about Paolo Banchero. To assess a young player who needs development is to try and see what a player can become while watching success and failure.
Jaden Hardy is a test case for the Dallas Mavericks. He flashes the kind of self-creation skills we associate with star scoring guards, but is clearly raw. What makes him interesting is he’s always been this way. In the G-League, he had stretches of basketball which screamed lottery-talent, and stretches where he looked outclassed. He was divisive on boards; John Hollinger saw him as borderline undraftable, whereas on “Draft Twitter” he remained a darling sleeper.
So it’s understandable that some Maverick’s fans project out, if not a top 30 player, a blue chip scoring combo guard comparable to recent fringe all-stars. Jordan Poole, Anfernee Simons, Tyrese Maxey, Tyler Herro. It’s also understandable if the skeptical see something less bankable. He was a second round draft pick, he’s never not been streaky in a professional setting, his physical limitations point to mediocre defense, and such players have built-in deficiencies in playoff basketball. What if he’s more of a bench gunner, who can give you scoring burst but is not consistent enough to be a starter? What if he’s worse?
What he’s shown on the NBA court as a driver is microcosmic of this either/or nature. One game he’s able to get into the lane and finish against NBA physicality with total confidence, and two nights later he looks unsure. This lack of conviction when attacking has always been the cause of Hardy’s struggles. In high school, Hardy was dominant. He was a top five high school recruit, but not a consensus top five prospect. The guile and effectiveness of his slashing was one of the biggest question marks.
My hypothesis has been that Hardy must feel comfortable with his process and the physicality of the level he’s playing at in order to unlock his driving. At his worst he’d dribble off of his foot and lead someone to suggest he has no handle, and yet he’s always shown advanced imagination about what dribble moves to carry out. This strange dichotomy led The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie to wonder if Hardy had the best handle in the draft, despite its inconsistency, because the craft was there. His finishing was similar, as he would exhibit indecisiveness that kept him in a no-man’s land; too deep under the basket, or head down and midair without a plan. As the G-League wore on, some light went off about those areas of his game; he looked comfortable, and all the sudden his finishing was effective. When playing in the G this season, he’s looked transformed from that time, and that purposeful driving has been the norm.
That finishing prowess has flashed at the NBA level, and it’s what has fans most excited. It’s also fair to believe developing that weakness quickly points to the ability to improve in general. It’s inarguable that he has a certain knack for getting where he wants to go as a driver. He doesn’t have elite burst, but has wiggle that helps him find his spot. The aesthetic quality of his game—a herky-jerky, wiry-limbed style–make his movements hard to mirror, and at his most instinctual he’s able to slide into small spaces and change his pace unconventionally. While he’s small for a 2-guard, there is a physicality waiting to bloom. Right now, he’s often thrown off his spot; his hands are weak, losing the ball off contact. His frame bodes well though; his shoulders look almost padded, arched like a gargoyle, a shell of armor waiting to be stretched out into functional muscle.
What I’ve done here in describing Hardy’s on-ball potential as a scorer is emblematic of fan’s excitement; it’s mostly been a positive view. Detractors aren’t wrong if they’ve seen the tape and believe consistent physicality and scoring process can’t be learned; that he’s unlikely to grow out of bad habits. There’s potential to solidify those skills into Hardy’s baseline, but it’s also fair to be weary of rose-colored glasses.
Hardy invites that bias. The trick as an excited fan, seeing one of the few buzzy young players in recent Maverick’s history, is a balanced perspective. Yes, he does have a twenty-point scorer in his range of outcomes– if it’s in the flashes, it has the potential to be a mainstay. Still, it’s difficult for small scoring guards to overcome the limitations of their defense, playmaking and playoff physicality. They must be hyper-efficient in a way one can’t project for Hardy right now. NBA history is littered with skilled offensive players whose impact didn’t measure up to their “bag”.
If Hardy were still in the G-League and in the coming draft cycle, his dominance at that level this year would lead to him being a first round pick. A fan isn’t wrong for no longer seeing him as a second rounder. The Mavericks track record with young players makes it easy for some to overrate him, but also makes it too easy to be doubtful–”when have they ever gotten this right.” It’s also important that the Mavericks see his upside clearly. They cannot afford to make him off-limits as a trade piece, but they also can’t trade him away if he’s a star in the marking. They have to do their jobs, and be better evaluators than us.
In the meantime, I encourage fans to avoid the highs and lows, and look for how his traits project, rather than each performance. The truth as always is somewhere in between his best and worst, and believing in his upside must meet a level expectation. One of my personal passions in basketball is tracking the development of young players, but that joy must be in the process, lest you overrate each young player. With Hardy, and with this older team, it becomes dangerously easy to do so. It’s great that there’s something to this Hardy kid, but the trick is understanding how often these flashes are just flashes–enough to capture the imagination, but as fleeting as basketball gets.