How Advanced Teaching—From His NBA Father to a Special Ops Trainer—Led to Tim Hardaway Jr.’s Emergence

(Photo courtesy of Tim Hardaway Jr.'s Instagram)

Tim Hardaway Jr. had a basketball routine before he even had a full set of teeth.

Three months after NBA great Tim Hardaway had Junior in 1992, while he was playing for the Warriors, he would regularly take him to the practice center when he was still sucking a bottle. As Hardaway remembers it, crying turned to calmness when his infant son heard the sound of a bouncing ball.

Then when Hardaway Jr. was seven years old, he would wake up at 6:30 a.m. daily—while living in the South Side of Chicago during the summer—to drive with his father to the former Hoops gym owned by legendary trainer Tim Grover, who got his start with Michael Jordan. That’s where Hardaway Jr. would watch his father, who was then playing for the Heat, work out and play pickup games with Jordan and other Bulls players (Scottie Pippen) and Chicago natives (Michael Finley, Juwan Howard, Antoine Walker and now NBPA player representative Bobby Simmons).

It was unique NBA moments like those that seasoned Hardaway Jr. at a younger age, grooming him to have a breakout season as the starting shooting guard for the fifth-seeded Hawks and become one of the most attractive free agents this summer as a 25-year-old.

🏀Since Day1

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“The intensity level was at an all-time high,” Hardaway Jr. recalled with the NBPA about those runs in Chitown. “And they had NBA refs, like Danny Crawford who was from Chicago, and they’d just have pickup game after pickup game for like hours and hours. It was just a humbling experience and I absorbed a lot of stuff.”

Hardaway was inspired to take his son with him everywhere he went based on experiences he had when he was younger.

“My dad took me to every game. He’s a playground legend, Donald Hardaway,” said Junior’s father, who’s been an assistant coach with the Pistons since 2014. “He took me around with him to all his games, recreation games, YMCA centers and all that type of stuff to watch him play. So when I got a son, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Hardaway Jr.’s early professional development continued in Miami. While longtime Heat president Pat Riley had a strict rule that no visitors were allowed in practice to avoid distractions, Hardaway Jr. was able to attend one session during training camp when he was a kid. It was at Immaculata-LaSalle High School, when the team was building AmericanAirlines Arena. What he observed had a profound impact on him, in addition to an emotional moment involving his father.

“You can see the intensity and see how passionate the game was supposed to be played,” he said. “It was remarkable and a great thing to see, so just that memory right there alone really inspired me to take the game serious and be passionate about it. And another thing I remember is when my dad lost I think to the Knicks in the playoffs. And he came back home and just locked himself in his office. I’ve never seen my dad like this ever. That’s how you know how much he cared about the game, and how much he loved the game and how much he hated to lose. It was also a great thing to see.”

#tbt my pops and I on NBA InsideStuff.

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Later on, when Hardaway Jr. was at Miami Palmetto Senior High School and at the University of Michigan, he would play in the summertime with Heat players and NBA guys who lived in the city, such as Raja Bell and Carlos Boozer. They taught Hardaway Jr. how to fight through hard picks, get around ball screens and deliver passes right where they wanted.

Sometimes when his father was training with teammates in the offseason, Hardaway Jr. would be able to participate in the drills. That gave him a real taste of NBA workouts consisting of cone dribbling manuevers and shooting over seven-foot-tall dummies. What also ignited his passion to play in the league was the actual ball.

“Just being able to play with an NBA basketball, a lot of guys don’t get a chance to play with that,” he said. “It fuels you. It makes you want to play at that next level.”

Behind his father’s dedication to his upbringing, Hardaway Jr. went on to become a Michigan standout and first-round draft pick in 2013. But he still needed to improve in one main area, so he could add slashing to his shooting game. Enter the work of Ed Downs, a fifth degree black belt and U.S. Martial Arts Hall of Fame inductee, who has trained NBA players for more than 20 years, including Hardaway and former Heat players in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as well as Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Hardaway Jr.’s teammate Dwight Howard during these playoffs.

“The whole goal was to make Tim a more athletic player,” Downs said.

Gamedayyy!!!! Last Pre-season game before the regular season finally begins…#atlanta #atlhawks

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Breakout Play and Postseason

Hardaway wanted Downs, who got his start in the NBA stretching Heat players before games, to begin working with his son when he was in high school. The focus from then through Hardaway’s third season in the NBA in 2015-16 was power, strength and endurance, “being able to handle the contact of the NBA, and the season going to 82 games,” Downs said.

The next phase, adjusting more to the speed of the game through more advanced exercises to develop his off-the-dribble game, came last summer. Downs described the essence of the training.

“The two key things were strength and hypertrophy together, and then explosive power merged with dynamic balance,” said Downs, who’s also worked with the U.S. Special Ops and owns a Miami-based gym called ProTERF (Training Enthusiasm Respect Fundamental). “That’s one thing we talked about: the speed of the game—being able to control that speed, and stop and score. Your release has to be quicker, it’s got to be under control. That’s why dynamic balance was a big deal—getting to a stop, boom, going straight up. That’s transferred over to his defense as well.”

With a Bachelor’s degree in mathematical science, and a background in computer science and extensive study in human body mechanics, Downs has built a unique niche for incorporating exercises within actual on-court movements. Here are four drills that he had Hardaway Jr. do to increase his speed, while building strength:

  • First Step — Holding an eight-pound medicine ball and wearing resistance bands on his ankles, he’d explode off of one foot to an angle at 2 o’clock, like he’s driving right by a defender. Then after jumping and sticking on that foot for two seconds, he’d go the opposite way to 11 o’clock. After acquiring the feel and explosiveness with the medicine ball, he’d use a basketball and then a ball without the bands. Purpose: To change directions effortlessly on the court, and spin or turn quickly from a step move.
  • VertiMax Step-ups — While being pulled down by a harness, he’d power off of one leg as if he’s going up to finish or grab an offensive rebound with two hands right after landing from a close-range shot. Purpose: To take a shot through traffic and contact, control the body to complete an and-one play and improve second jump reaction time.
(Photo courtesy of Ed Downs)

Tim Hardaway Jr. doing the VertiMax Step-ups. (Photo courtesy of Ed Downs)

  • D4 Decision-Making — He’d power dribble with an eight-pound medicine ball in front of a wall with different lights, which were positioned in different areas to touch when one went off after another. Purpose: To make a split-second decision to counter the defense by deciding quickly to pass, shoot or dribble (D4 stands for Dynamic, Detect, Diagnose and Decide).
  • Memory Recall Shooting — Using a basketball, he’d wait for a different light to go off in a certain area of the court (the arc, elbow and post), and then dribble there quickly and perform a move that represents the light. Red meant stop and pop, green meant blast by his defender and dunk, and blue meant do a different counter dribble and then finish. Purpose: To become more instinctive with decision-making through moves on the court.

After every workout, which lasted an hour and 15 minutes at ProTERF or at the University of Miami (with Hardaway also on the court teaching basketball), Junior felt very sore for the next couple of days because of different muscles he was building.

“There’d be times where spots in my back that I’ve never felt before are sore, and in my legs and everything,” he said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Ed with his workouts. The game is just slowing down and I’m not really rushing anything.”

Their conversations together even covered Downs’ martial arts background and work with the military. He taught his student ways to defend himself in any situation—lessons that were also meant to translate to his craft.

“It’s not having fear of anything,” Downs said. “And when I tell him that, why would he be afraid on the basketball court? All that builds confidence.”

And that’s where Downs has seen the biggest upgrade this season from Hardaway Jr., who averaged career highs in points (14.5 points), shooting (45.5 percent) and most statistical categories. He also picked up his scoring (16.8) after Kyle Korver was sent to Cleveland on Jan. 7, flourishing with his lob finishes, slashing skills, coming off of down screens and filling the lanes in fast breaks. That confidence also came after the trade, when Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told him “just to be aggressive out there, and play smart and play your game,” Hardaway Jr. said. And his teammates were behind him.

With the increased minutes, he’s looked to bring out a lot of his film study of Wade, who he also had the privilege of watching up close in Miami. Hardaway Jr. has closely observed the Bulls star’s footwork, first step, shooting ability, how he manuevers his body “so effortlessly,” and how he gets to the rim and can still dunk like a younger player.

GameDay #truetoatlanta

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The next step for Hardaway Jr. is learning how to close games.

“Now, it’s just working on when my team needs a bucket and when they go to me, can I deliver?” he said. “I think I’m at that point in my career now. You have to have some of those moments where you are the go-to guy and your team needs you to deliver. But it’s a great feeling even when you miss the shot because you know that you had an opportunity, and you know what? It’s going to come again.”

As Hardaway Jr. continues his ascension, he’s still grounded by his father’s guidance. When they see each other—during the season, it’s usually over dinner the night before the game—the first 15 minutes are dedicated to basketball talk. Hardaway stresses to him, “If you want to learn, be in the front row to understand. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to do the drills. If you do the work, you’ll reap the rewards.” And then the conversations shift to life and career planning. Hardaway Jr., who enjoys boating and golfing in Miami, would like to one day start a foundation and establish basketball camps back home.

“It’s just fun to be around him and listen to his experiences about life and growing up,” Hardaway said. “And that’s what a parent loves to hear—how your kid is enjoying life and what is he doing, and how is he preparing for the future.”

Happy Fathers Day pops.

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The biggest basketball advice that Hardaway Jr. has taken from his father is “have fun and be yourself,” which he’s been telling him since high school. “Something just that small has made a big impact on my development and my game,” he said. Hardaway, who sported a big smile and the “UTEP Two-Step” crossover to become a five-time All-Star, always played with flair, which Junior said he has; he just needs to work on the tenacity like his father.

These days, Hardaway said his colleagues with the Pistons are laughing at him, but in a fun way. That’s because he tells them, “I’m still going to the playoffs. You’re going to see me on TV watching my son at the arena.”

Hardaway is a studious fan of his son in the stands, analyzing the game and seeing what he needs to do better for himself and the team. But Hardaway may hoop and holler when he has a big dunk or three-pointer. Overall, pops is stoked about his son’s second postseason (his first was last year).

“Now, everybody’s going to see what he’s made of for real, and that’s what I’m excited for with him,” he said. “I can’t wait because I know this is what he wants, and I know this is what he’s gearing up for.”

It took a few seasons, but as the 6’6″ Hardaway Jr. emerges as the Hawks’ biggest new threat, he’s creating his own identity—not only because he’s the rare player who’s taller than his NBA father, who’s 6’0″.

“I thank my mom for that,” Junior said, laughing.

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