Jaden Hardy: I’m so EXCITED, I’m so…SCARED
Jaden Hardy has shown dazzling flashes of electrifying potential, but does a deeper dive into the tape cause reason for concern?
There’s no tradition more American than binge-watching mind-numbing television for hours on end when you’re home sick. As such, over the Christmas break, I came down with a case of the Rona and had no choice but to sit in bed, isolated, melting my brain with nonsensical Netflix consumption of shows that I’ve seen a million times over. I was a little too woozy to focus on anything too serious so I clicked on a childhood go-to that gave me the comfort needed to help aid my recovery. What better show for a person born in 1986 to melt their brain with than Saved By The Bell, the most 90’s of all 90’s television?
Saved By The Bell has many classic episodes, but none more memorable than Jessie’s Song. This is the episode where Jessie Spano gets addicted to caffeine pills as she tries her best to balance her high scholastic standards with singing in a pop supergroup. Jessie is eventually woken up by Zack as she oversleeps her label showcase, reaches for her pill bottle, and has a nervous breakdown in which she belts out the immortal lyrics that changed television forever…
I'm so excited, I’m so excited, I’m so…scared.
Now, you may be asking yourself what any of this has to do with the NBA draft or prospect evaluation?
Enter Jaden Hardy, the five star bucket-getting shooting guard that bypassed college hoops to be the dude on the NBA’s G-League Ignite. Hardy was my pre-season #1 overall prospect due to an endless barrage of thirty-foot combo move dribble pull-ups that seemed to barely ever touch the rim. He honestly looked like a combination of Jayson Tatum and Damian Lillard at times. I was freakin’ amped to watch him in a pro setting. His game was made for it.
But watching the Detroit native’s pro tape has told a much different story. A story in which nothing has been able to so sufficiently sum up my feelings more than that infamous line acted out to perfection by Elizabeth Berkley.
It’s no secret that Hardy has struggled mightily this season. It may even be generous to say that Hardy can’t hit the broad side of a barn. It’s a tough scene when you’re billed as a potentially elite shooter but carry 35/27 shooting splits on over 17 attempts per game. The percentages didn’t get better when I attended Sunday afternoon’s contest between the Ignite and the Nets. Hardy went a cool 0-11 from the floor and 0-4 behind the arc. Not exactly the outing I was hoping to witness with my actual eyeballs.
As frightening as these numbers are, I can still somewhat look past them when projecting forward. I was pretty nervous about LaMelo Ball’s eerily similar shooting splits coming out of the NBL. LaMelo’s numbers were really bad coming out of Australia, but it was mostly due to shot selection. Ball had the freedom to walk the ball up the court and chuck up a bomb without fearing any kind of repercussion. That kind of freedom, the kind Ball has played with his whole life, could have certainly led to some bad long-term habits, but it also allowed him to experiment and develop his game in unique ways. The shot selection was ugly, but it gave us a glimpse into some of the tough shots he’d be capable of hitting at the next level. If Melo could reign some of those shots in, the sky was the limit.
Hardy has likewise had moments where he dazzles you with his long-range shot-making prowess. Aesthetically, the J is beautiful. The soft, smooth, high arc that Hardy delivers when the ball leaves his hand, often makes you wonder why the shot isn’t dropping more often. When it goes in, it looks as NBA ready as any prospect in the class. If you take the more optimistic approach to Hardy’s long term projection, you may argue that Hardy, like Ball, is getting to experiment with his abilities and when he starts playing under an NBA ecosystem, he’ll dial the tough off the bounce shots back a little and play a more restrained style that allows him to play more to his strengths.
Comparing Ball to Hardy isn’t exactly fair to LaMelo. Ball had elite feel and playmaking to fall back on even if he never became a good NBA shooter. Ball was and remains a basketball savant. Hardy is…not that. This divergence is what scares me most about Hardy as a pro. Feel is probably one of the last indicators you’d use to describe Hardy’s game.
Whenever Jaden has to make tough decisions that high usage guards have to regularly make, things get dicey. Too often Hardy’s in-between game resembles that Michael Scott line about starting a sentence. He just kind of freelances without any real regard for what he’s about to do. The results are usually less than ideal.
Hardy can be sloppy and careless with the ball, he has trouble reading the floor, and his handle is just not at the level it needs to be at to be a top option on an NBA team. Add in the tunnel vision and the score first score second mentality and treating Hardy like the high-level prospect he was rated as during the pre-season is dangerous.
But just because we’ve had to reevaluate what Jaden Hardy might be at the next level, doesn’t mean there isn’t something there. Hardy may not have progressed at the pace we’re all looking for, but he has had moments where he looks the part.
Even if Hardy doesn’t become the off the bounce shot-making demon he was projected to be, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have NBA-level skills that should intrigue teams. My favorite part of Hardy’s game is the way he moves off the ball. For a ball-dominant guard, Hardy looks like a natural firing off pin downs or floppy actions. His best moment of the season came during a 30 point outing where he knocked down a game-winning three-point bucket running off of a couple of baseline screens. Hardy has also been pretty adept at leveraging that off-ball movement with curls to the hoop, where his plus frame allows him to take contact and draw fouls. If Hardy can fully buy into an off-ball role where he causes havoc running defenders through a litany of screens, we may have a much more interesting player than the inefficient chucker we’ve seen in the G-League.
Hardy’s first pro season has been a roller coaster ride. Maybe that’s exactly what we should have expected with a kid that just hasn’t had the high-level experience that some of the other prospects have had. Hardy shut down his senior high school season due to the pitfalls of navigating a Covid season, he didn’t play in the FIBA U19 tournament like many of the other top prospects; he missed out on some real developmental opportunities. The jump he took in the level of competition heading to the G-League was major. It shouldn’t be shocking that he’s struggling.
Look, I’m nervous about evaluating and projecting Hardy. The talent is undeniable and that raw potential makes you wonder if you’re overthinking things sometimes. Not every player progresses at the same speed and there’s still time for Hardy to go on a hot streak. But we also can’t ignore that the film has shown us a prospect that just doesn’t look like he’s close to being ready. Will he ever be? Can he still end up as the Tatum/Dame hybrid he looked like in high school or is he more Ben McLemore 2.0? I want to believe in Jaden Hardy the prospect, but taking him too early may end up as scary a proposition as Jessie Spano and a bottle of caffeine pills.