Welcome to Basketball News' 10-part mini-series, Blazing the
Trail, where Mat Issa breaks down the most revolutionary players of
the 1990s and 2000s. Throughout this series, we'll examine how
these players changed basketball and pioneered their respective
In this eighth installment, Mat goes in-depth on the dual
threat nature of Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway. He explains what made
Hardaway different from the point guards that came before him with
insights from former teammates Nick Anderson and Danny Schayes, and
former coach Richie Adubato.
On June 30, 1993, the Orlando Magic traded first overall draft pick
Chris Webber in exchange for three future first-round picks and
Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway.
That night, Nick Anderson heard his phone ring.
“I’ll never forget. When that trade was made, I got a call from
my dad… he said, 'Man, y’all just got a hell of a player in Penny
Hardaway,'” Anderson recalled to Basketball News.
In hindsight, Anderson’s father was right on the money. Hardaway
was an astounding player. And no, it wasn't only because of his
size. He was something more than that.
Hardaway was a precursor of what was to come, and a trailblazer
for what became known as the modern lead guard.
What Made Hardaway Special
While not his only revolutionary component, his size did afford
him plenty of amenities. Hardaway measured
in at 6-foot-7, and he used his elevated vantage point to pick
apart opponents in ways his shorter contemporaries couldn’t.
“At 6-foot-7 ½, 6-foot-8, he could see over most of the guys
that went against him at the point guard [position],” Anderson
Study these clips below:
In the first play, Hardaway easily surveys the arena despite his
opponent’s aggressive ball-screen coverage. In the second sequence,
Gary Payton (who still stood at a respectable 6-foot-4) is blinded
by the double-team and, ultimately, fails to recognize the lurking
defender wandering in the shadows.
Hardaway’s passing was a combination of these enhanced sight
lines and his creativity as a distributor. In a 1997 regular-season
game against Minnesota, he tricked the defense into believing he
was looking to score not once, not twice, but three times — only to
rifle the ball to an open teammate at the last minute.
Speaking of scoring, Hardaway’s arsenal of moves was as
superfluous as they come.
"He could score inside and out, he could shoot the three, he
could post-up, you could isolate him anywhere, he could run the
pick and roll, and he could lead the fastbreak,” said Richie
Adubato, one of Hardaway's head coaches in Orlando (1996-97).
Hardaway could get buckets in every way imaginable. On-ball,
off-ball, in transition, coming off screens, with two defenders
breathing down his neck — it didn’t matter. He just cooked.
His scoring versatility bared resemblance to Shaquille O’Neal’s
other co-star teammate, Kobe Bryant. The only meaningful difference
in their bucket-hunting was that Hardaway was much more efficient
with his methods. In 1995-96, his Relative True Shooting percentage
was over six points above league average. Bryant’s, on the other
hand, never surpassed four points above average at any point in his
“I know Kobe was Kobe,” Anderson declared. “But if Penny
Hardaway never got hurt, people would be talking about [him] in the
It's this combination of playmaking and scoring that earns him
that moniker of "The Floor Giant." It's not his physical stature,
but his statistical impact that looms large over the court. During
his peak season in 1995-96, Hardway placed in the 92nd percentile
in scoring volume and the 96th percentile in playmaking (per
To understand why these numbers are significant, let’s compare
those numbers to the five most famous point guards of the 1980s,
1990s and 2000s: Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Jason
Kidd and Steve Nash.
Hardaway's Scoring and Creation vs. Other All-Time Great
Visual Created by Daniel
The lone Hall-of-Fame guard who matches his blend of scoring and
playmaking is Magic (bookmark that for later). The other four
legends authored all-time playmaking seasons, but fell short in the
scoring department. The reason behind that was the political
landscape of the point guard position at the time.
“The guards were directing the offense for the most part, and
they would always go to the lead scorers,” Adubato explained. “If
it was a post scorer, then [the point guard] would always be
looking for him... down inside.
“[There was] not a lot of individual stuff. They ran set plays
all the time, and the set plays were usually governed by the point
Nash himself alluded to these norms during his appearance on the
“Book of Basketball 2.0” podcast:
I grew up playing the game where people told you, as a point guard,
you go 5-for-7, 7-for-10 and get all your teammates involved,
loving the game and feeling empowered. That’s the way I approached
Hardaway, though, was a deviation from the old school. He
figured out a way to counterbalance his teammates' touches with
that of his own, and in the process, he quarterbacked a top-three
offense in the league every season he shared with O’Neal in
“[Hardaway] was a transformational player,” former Magic
teammate Danny Schayes told Basketball News. “A guy who
brought a new element to the game.”
In basketball, we have what are known as floor-raisers and
ceiling-raisers. In a vacuum, floor-raisers are players with skill
sets who lend themselves to dragging poor teams into respectability
(e.g., Russell Westbrook in OKC post-Kevin Durant), and
ceiling-raisers are the ones who can help already-good teams ascend
to even greater heights (e.g., Stephen Curry in Golden State).
Hardaway possessed both these features.
In 1992-93, before Hardaway arrived in Orlando, the Magic
finished 41-41. Thanks to his synergy with O’Neal, Hardaway
immediately raised the ceiling of this unit, pushing them from 41
wins to 50, 57 and 60 in the following three seasons.
The Hardaway-O’Neal tandem was a lethal one, and during their
brief time together, they clinched two Eastern Conference Finals
appearances and an NBA Finals berth in 1995. However, in 1995-96,
when "The Diesel" was temporarily out of commission due to injury,
Hardaway leaned on his floor-raising powers to keep the team
In the 1995-96 season, O’Neal missed 28 games, and during that
stretch, the Magic still managed to put together a 20-8 record
(71.4%), roughly the same winning percentage Orlando operated at
when Shaq was healthy at 40-14 (74.1%).
In O’Neal’s absence, Hardaway went on a tear, averaging 25.5
points and 6.4 assists per game on a 62.5% True Shooting clip — an
effort that ultimately helped vault Penny to third in MVP voting that
(Note: On the Blazing the Trail podcast, Tyler Britton of the
Hoop Venue YouTube Channel and I broke down where
Hardaway ranked in the league that season, and we ultimately landed
on him falling somewhere in the 4-to-7 range).
Visual Provided by Sports Aptitude
This same phenomenon played out the following season when the
Magic lost their second-best scorer, Rony Seikaly, in the middle of
their first-round playoff series against the Miami Heat, leaving
Hardaway to pick up the remaining pieces.
Adubato, Orlando's head coach at the time, remembers it like it
“We were down 2-0, and I called [Hardaway] into the office,”
Adubato recalled. “No ingenious move; I just said, ‘I am gonna put
in two plays that the Pistons run for Grant Hill… two plays that I
know you’ll be able to run with your athleticism.’ In the next two
games, [Hardaway] scored 42 and 41 [points]."
“When [Seikaly] got hurt, we ended up switching our style,” said
Schayes, who ended up starting in place of the injured Seikaly. “We
went away from our offensive balance to everything through
[Hardaway], and he was able to [take] over the series. That goes to
show you how much he always had in reserve.”
Along with masterful Game 3 and Game 4 performances, Hardaway
capped the Miami series with a scintillating Game 5, finishing the
three-game run with an average of 38.7 points per contest on 64.2%
All of this further illustrates the dual-threat nature of his
attack. When he had the personnel, Hardaway could co-pilot the ship
next to his low-post-centric co-stars. And when needed to, he could
ramp his already impressive scoring numbers to historic levels.
Weaving the Thread
Much like Shane Battier from
Volume III of this series, Hardaway was mesmerized by the
grandeur of the skyscraping Magic Johnson. “Magic was number one,”
Hardaway said on the All the Smoke podcast.
Ironically, Hardaway’s fuse of gargantuan height and resplendent
facilitating ability often garnered his comparison to the Lakers’
“You know he was pegged as the next Magic Johnson [because of]
the way he passed the ball,” Anderson added.
It makes sense when you think about it. Going back to our chart
from earlier, Johnson is the only other guard to be in the 90/90
club (90th percentile in scoring and playmaking volume). Magic
accomplished this feat nearly a decade prior, in 1986-87, when he
placed in the 92nd and 100th percentile in scoring and playmaking
volume, respectively (per Backpicks.com).
Hardaway's Scoring and Creation vs. Other All-Time Great
Visual Created by Daniel BratuliÄ‡
So why didn’t we just spotlight Magic Johnson instead?
One word: Spacing.
To understand, watch these two plays, and as you do so, take
note of the stark contrast in where their teammates are stationed
on the court:
Even in 1991, the Los Angeles Lakers deployed archaic spacing
methods. In each of Johnson’s first 12 seasons dawning the purple
and gold, his team only attempted more than 10 threes per game once
(they averaged 10.3 attempts per contest in the 1989-90
Hardaway was a more modern version of the super-sized guard
archetype. As Adubato noted, those Magic teams prioritized spacing
shooters out on the perimeter to enable Hardaway and O’Neal room to
operate in the post. From 1994 to 1997, Orlando hoisted over 19
three-point attempts per game. (Note: This total is partially
influenced by the shortening of the three-point line). Orlando's
half-court alignments were far more similar to the ones we are
accustomed to seeing in today’s space-ball era.
And while media pundits of the time likened Hardaway to Johnson,
his former teammate Schayes always felt that Hardaway was more
athletic than his predecessor, and that a better comparison would
be Oscar Robertson.
“[Hardaway] was much more athletic than Magic was,” Schayes
explained. “If you want to compare him to anybody, it might be
Of course, Robertson was the godfather of the towering floor
general. At 6-foot-5, "Big O" possessed a combination of size,
speed and strength that overwhelmed his less-gifted adversaries,
and, as a result, helped him champion the first triple-double
season averaged in NBA history in 1961-62.
Ironically, Robertson was also a founding father of this 90/90
club we’ve established, owning a whopping six seasons that fit
these guidelines (per Backpicks.com).
Regardless of which connection you favor, Hardaway’s blend of
size, passing and athleticism – coupled with forward-thinking and
tactical decision-making – made him the perfect liaison to connect
the players of this model from the past to those of the
Impact on Today’s Game
Recently on his show, The Two Cents Podcast, Hardaway chatted with fellow Magic icon Tracy
McGrady. During their conversation, McGrady confessed that he
tried to emulate every finite detail of Hardaway’s game, even down
to his jersey number.
This admission is relevant to us because certified scoring
cyclone Kevin Durant is on the record saying he mimed McGrady's
style in his own training. And when you watch their combination of
footwork, ball skills and ability to gain separation through
elevation on his jumper, you see remnants of primetime
(In that second clip, we get Hardaway's depiction of Hakeem
Olajuwon's "Dream Shake.")
If you ask Hardaway about potential descendants occupying
today’s NBA landscape, he points to Ben Simmons because of their
shared affinity for ripping and running the open floor.
“I think in transition... Ben Simmons, how he pushes the
tempo... as a big guard,”
Hardaway mentioned on the All the Smoke podcast.
But as we’ve established, Hardaway’s major contribution to the
field was his ability to function as a dual-threat quarterback.
With that in mind, looking at this past NBA season's 90/90 club,
the member whose physical dimensions most resemble Hardaway’s is
When asked about the modern-day comparison to SGA, Anderson was
quick to offer his stamp of approval.
“I like that,” Anderson quickly replied. “I like his size...
yeah, I agree with that.”
Last season, Gilgeous-Alexander finished in the 92nd percentile
in scoring volume and 91st percentile in playmaking volume (per
More than that, he lapped the field in drives per game –
averaging nearly two more drives per game than the second-place
finisher, Luka Doncic (per NBA.com). He managed this feat by
leveraging his massive stride length to elongate himself past
defenders in a manner eerily similar to the way
Hardaway once did in the mid-1990s.
Today, the league is littered with lead guards qualified to join
the illustrious 90/90 club. Players like Doncic, Trae Young and Ja
Morant (among others) can all call that venue home.
And although they are all different in their own ways, they all
have Hardaway to thank for his giant impact on the game today.
Tune in two weeks from now for Part IX of Blazing the Trail,
which focuses on Chauncey Billups, the basketball cheat
Click here to read Part VII:
Dirk Nowitzki, the unicorn that became world
Click here to read Part VI:
Shawn Kemp, the aerial artist
Click here to read Part V:
Andrei Kirilenko, the five-tool defender
Click here to read Part IV:
Reggie Miller, the moving target
Click here to read Part III:
Shane Battier, the data-ball defender
Click here to read Part II:
Rashard Lewis, the All-Star stretch 4
Click here to read Part I: Steve
Nash, the magician who danced in the paint