How Quickly We Forget: Penny Hardaway

How Quickly We Forget: Penny Hardaway
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Who are the top-10 point guards in NBA history?

It's a question we've all pondered before. Whether it has been in the form of a simple thought, or the source of an intense debate between others, it is a question that most NBA fans will have considered multiple times. Of course, there is no right answer. Top-10 lists will always vary from person to person, but when it comes to point guards in NBA history, there tend to be trends. Some familiar names will almost certainly appear in every list: Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and John Stockton, to name a few. Maybe fans could be forgiven for leaving players like Isiah Thomas out due to the notoriety he gained within multiple fan bases. Perhaps fans who appreciate the current crop of NBA players would throw in current players like Chris Paul into the mix. However, there is one name that does not get the attention and thought he deserves when it comes to lists like these. It doesn't even stop at lists; just among the average fan, this one player gets skimmed past too much when it comes to the all-time greats to have played in the NBA. His name? Anfernee Hardaway.

Perhaps you are more familiar with his nickname: Penny. Either way, mention Penny Hardaway's name and you will likely get responses of people reminiscing about what his career could have been, instead of what it was.  The perception of Hardaway's NBA tenure seems to be one of sorrow instead of one of awe. Of course, the injuries that eventually deteriorated Hardaway's career were real, and we were truly robbed of a career full of potential for one of the NBA's all-time greats.

While in the past, my How Quickly We Forget series has focused on players from previous generations like George Mikan and Elgin Baylor, it has come to a point where the view of Penny Hardaway's career needs to be revamped. That time is now as we surely need to focus less on the injuries, and take awe in the player he was instead. It's time for a paradigm shift.

After convincing the Orlando Magic he was worthy keeping instead of Chris Webber, who was taken 1st overall by Orlando in the 1993 NBA Draft, Penny Hardaway was aligned with Shaquille O'Neal and Dennis Scott on draft night, being the third piece of a young trio that would propel the Orlando Magic franchise to new heights. In his rookie season, Hardaway helped lead the Magic to a then-record 50 wins and their first playoff berth. He averaged 16.0 points, 6.6 assists, and 5.4 rebounds in his first campaign, and he finished 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting.

The 1994-1995 season was only Hardaway's second, but by the end of this season, he had already become the league's best point guard. Not only was he voted in as an All-Star starter by fans, but he was named to the All-NBA First Team. His sophomore campaign with the Magic got better during the playoffs as Hardaway and the Magic famously became the only team to eliminate Michael Jordan from the postseason after he had won his first championship in 1991. Eventually, the Magic lost to the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals in a sweep led by an inspired Hakeem Olajuwon. The next season was another great one for Penny Hardaway as his status as the best point guard stuck. He was voted into the All-Star game, and once again, he was a selection for the All-NBA First Team. He lead the Magic to a franchise record 60 wins, and he especially stood out at the start of the season when he carried the Magic while fellow star Shaquille O'Neal was injured. By this point in his career, Hardaway had only missed five games of his first three seasons in the league, and he looked well on his way to becoming a legend in the making. After three seasons, he had compiled two All-NBA First Team selections, two All-Star game starting spots, an NBA Finals appearance, and also a second place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. His averages during this time: 19.5 points, 7.0 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.0 steals.

The next season saw Shaquille O'Neal depart to the Los Angeles Lakers, and Hardaway was the lone star in Orlando. O'Neal's departure coincided with the start of Hardaway's injury problems as the next season saw him play a mere 59 games. He still managed to get voted into the All-Star game as a starter again, and he was voted onto the All-NBA Third Team this time around. The season after was cut short for Hardaway as an early knee injury sidelined him for most of the season, reducing him to just 19 games. The '98-99 season was a renaissance season, for he played in all 50 games of the lockout-shortened season. Although his production had dropped slightly, he was still at an elite level. In the following season, he was traded to the Phoenix Suns, and it would be his last season while he was still at the top of his game. He was in Phoenix with a fellow elite guard in Jason Kidd, but both guards struggled with injuries throughout the season. Hardaway still averaged 16.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists.

The following years would see Hardaway decline as a myriad of injuries and aging saw his production slow down. However, let's not forget how great he was during his productive (albeit shortened) years.

Standing at a huge (for a point guard) 6'7", Hardaway was instantly eye-catching for how big he was at that position. The height advantage he possessed allowed him to make plays on both sides of the court that other point guards simply couldn't. He was also extremely versatile, being able to not only run the point guard position, but also shooting guard and small forward positions. He was an excellent scorer who was capable of leading a team with the scoring burden when required. Despite being a facilitator, he was able to average over 20 points during a season multiple times. His vision and passing skills were great as well, and he was a skillful operator in the pick-and-roll and in the post. Pre-injuries, he was a tremendous athlete whose explosiveness and quickness combined with his height made him a major headache for opposing defenses. He even was an MVP-caliber player in his early days, competing with the best players in the league such as Michael Jordan. He was that good.

So now, whenever any new "big" point guard makes his way to the NBA, whether it is Dante Exum or Michael Carter-Williams, the best-case scenario projection for these players tend to be peak Penny Hardaway. The standard that Hardaway set during his years still stands just as high almost two decades on, and it will be a while before we ever see another Penny. No one can change the past, and while the what if question will forever be applicable to Penny Hardaway, we should at least look back and appreciate what was. He was one of the best point guards to play the game, and his talent and playing style changed the way the game was played.